FROM TIME TO TIME, actually quite often when I think about it, while writing my WISP (Work in Slow Progress), I have to really think about the way people lived in London 150 years ago and what the relationships between employers and domestic staff were like. I mean the nitty-gritty stuff such as where they hung the tin bath and whether the servants were allowed to use it.
If that sounds trivial, it is. Also, it is not.
In my true-crime historical novel set in 1872, four women live at 13 Park Lane, a smallish terraced house in Mayfair, London, where the central act of the story takes place: Madame Riel, a 46-year-old widowed Parisian former milliner; her 25-year-old actress daughter Julie; Eliza Watts, an English maid in her 30s; and Marguerite Diblanc, a 28-year-old non-English-speaking Belgian who has been hired as a cook.
Most of you will have had experience of flat-sharing and will know how seemingly minor disagreements can quickly become toxic. Add in the employer-employee dynamic and some illicit sex and an explosion is just a question of time. My task is to describe how exactly the house becomes a pressure cooker of emotions, some of them hooked on issues of domestic disputes.
Of course, being me, I do both too much research and not enough, and I am easily led down rabbit holes.
Would you like a little tour of what has been going on in the rabbit holes of my mind? Oh, you’ve twisted my arm.
First, the laundry
No domestic washing-machines, right? Actually, there were quite a few. Industrial machines big enough to fill a room had been around for a while, but inventors were working hard on domestic models.
So, did my French ladies have one? I think not. There is nowhere in the house to hang a lot of wet laundry. There is only the tiniest of backyards, which is enclosed by tall buildings on all sides and I can’t see a stickler for detail like Madame Riel allowing her smalls to be hung up in the kitchen for all to see. I have given the Riels a laundry service owned by another French woman, Madame Deprez, in Rathbone Place. Every week a man with a horse-drawn cart collects the everyday items — sheets, linens, underwear, as well as tablecloths and serviettes. I found Madame Deprez in the 1872 trade directory for London, which is among my favourite reading these days.
But what about the servants, Eliza and Marguerite? They certainly can’t afford a fancy French laundry service. I decided that they wash their underwear by hand in the scullery using carbolic soap, they mangle it and leave it to dry overnight on a pulley rack above the range.
Which leads us to…
You have four women, all of them (possibly) menstruating. Did Madame Riel and Julie send their rags away to Madame Deprez to deal with or did Eliza and/or Marguerite wash them?
The rags that women tied into their underclothes when they were bleeding were not literally rags (except, I suppose, it they were destitute in which case anything would do). In 1872 there were products.
I have not yet decided how much period information to include in the story. Perhaps you could signal a preference. Personally, I’m fascinated by details like this but I don’t want to overwhelm people.
And finally… money (and shopping)
Marguerite, being the cook, was in charge of all things food, and that included shopping for the larder. How does she buy the ingredients? The bread, cheese, meat and fish was purchased on Madame Riel’s account in French-owned shops, of which there were plenty in Soho, a fifteen-minute walk from Park Lane.
What about the market? She has no money of her own, so in the story, I have given her Madame Riel’s leather coin purse (with strict instructions to account to her mistress for every penny she spends) and sent her to a French man in Berwick Street market, who imports aubergines, garlic, onions and so on. In her eight months in London she never gets a handle on the money — and who can blame her? All those farthings, sixpences, thrupenny bits and half a crowns. Can you imagine? Note: I remember doing pages of money sums with this nonsense at school.
And a side note: In 1872 there was a sizeable French population in London. Refugees from the first French revolution of 1789, many of them aristocrats, as well as waves of people fleeing the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, more fleeing Emperor Napoléon III, others who exited Paris as the Prussians encircled the city in 1870, still others who ran when the Commune was declared in 1871 and still others who, as Marguerite did, arrived in London after the Commune fell. So, all sorts, left and right (and plenty of French government spies). The Leftists, generally speaking, settled in Bloomsbury. Soho was more the commercial centre of French life, where you would find the delicatessens, the boulangeries, hotels, bars, furniture dealers, hairdressers and so on.
That’s it for now. But before I go, I promised you news, and news you shall have. I have, kind of, finished the first draft. As a little psychological trick on myself, I have roughly formatted it in book style, which allows me to spot the mistakes more easily and amend the errors of plot and narrative. That’s what I’m telling myself anyway.
I’m nowhere near finished but progress is happening… Till next time.
Particularly fascinating blog. I had no idea about the washing machines. How much period detail? Tricky - how did women (posh, French/Belgian and/or otherwise) view menstruation? And men, for that matter?