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The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House

The most senior of upper servants, the housekeeper typically carried a family's secrets with her to the grave. She ran the English country house, controlled its female servants and conserved its many treasures – yet she has not been remembered by history. Using old letters, secret diaries and neglected archives, this gripping social history resurrects a series of fascinating stories from 19th and 20th century domestic service at some of our most prominent households. 

Six women, six households, and 200 years of history are here brought vividly to life through a period of relentless social change. The housekeeper enters the book haughtily, in black bombazine and whalebone stays; she exits a lone figure in a nylon housecoat, down on arthritic knees with a scrubbing brush.


None of these women, mulling over the day in their parlours, would have imagined their stories worth telling. In six gripping accounts, Tessa Boase brings to life the heroic women who ran (and still run) Britain's country houses.   

Click the images below to find out more about each housekeeper

Praise for 'The Housekeeper's Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House'
'A fluent study ⁠— Boase builds a deep, rich account of their individual lives, returning from the archive with some telling tales'
Kathryn Hughes, Times Literary Supplement

'Boase makes history sing, packing her stories with details of family life and class distinctions and the minutiae of everyday living in a house with 10 or 30 or even 100 servants. A great read'
Liz Braun, Toronto Sun

'While we wait for Mrs Hughes and the rest of the cast of Downton Abbey to return to our screens, Boase's charming book on the real lives of housekeepers should temporarily stave off the hunger ⁠— The diary kept by Grace Higgens, housekeeper to Vanessa Bell, offers a particularly fascinating peek into the Bloomsbury set'

Julia Richardson, Daily Mail 'Must Reads'

'A compelling and beautifully-written account which tells fascinating stories of some very different, and intriguing, women. One of the great strengths of this book is how Boase gets under the skin of the real side of country house life'
Trevor Heaton, Eastern Daily Press
'Fascinating. Tessa Boase has teased out the subtleties of Grace Higgens' daily life and relations with the family with great skill. A clear-eyed study of the practical limits of bohemianism'
Canvas magazine, News from Charleston
'Tessa Boase has done an excellent job piecing together the stories of these five lives through her painstaking research into letters, memoirs and accounts. A highly readable new book'
Jeremy Musson, Country Life

'The truth is more scandalous than film or fiction ⁠— this is one of those social history studies that makes the reader howl with rage'
Roger Lewis, Daily Mail
'Wiped clean of romantic sheen, this is a fascinating perspective into our upstairs/downstairs history, immaculately researched' 
Kerry Fowler, Sainsbury's Magazine
'Absorbing reading for Downton Abbey devotees. Like the television series, The Housekeeper's Tale explores these women's inner lives, which are almost without exception set against work that was difficult and unrewarding. Boase wants to set the record straight ⁠— or at least augment it'
Adele Oliveira - Pasatiempo magazine, The New Mexican
'Boase has written humanistically, and opened a door to a profoundly Feminist Marxist understanding of modern English history'
Karen Dahood,
'Boase's writing highlights the joy of using old records and bundles of letters in archives. Where the records are lacking, reasoned argument is used to complete the story. This book is a fascinating read and a great contribution to understanding the social history of domestic service in Victorian, Edwardian and modern times. Highly recommended'
Tony Sergeant, Federation of Family History Societies (
'A gripping popular history'
Bee Wilson - Stella Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph
'One of the many pleasures of Boase's book is its sensitivity to the feelings of those who rarely had a chance in life to express them. Servants tend to be footnotes to well-documented lives, but here Ellen, Dorothy, Sarah, Hannah and Grace are put back in the main narrative, where they belong'
Lucy Lethbridge, Third Age Matters magazine (U3A)
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