Tessa Boase is not sure modern mistresses treat their employees any better than their predecessors

Mentioning my cleaner will almost certainly provoke fury among TPPSG readers. After I praised her to the skies in several fortnightly bulletins, she let many of you down, sometimes spectacularly. Valeria (not her real name) has also driven me to the brink over the past five years. This young Brazilian woman cleans like no other but comes with a bundle of baggage that can make you feel you are slowly going mad. Is she coming this week? I don’t know. I never know.

Yet I have stuck with Valeria and her exasperating inconsistency, lack of communication, chaotic personal life and financial crises – and not just because she wields an e-cloth like none other. For almost as long as I’ve employed her, I’ve been immersed in writing a social history book about servants. Not any old servant, but the top dog; the housekeeper of the great English country house.
As a working woman in the 19th and early 20th-century, you could do no better. The country house housekeeper might manage 100 maids and a domestic budget on a par with a small bank. She had no need of a home of her own, or a husband. But she has been invisible to history. These were largely uneducated women, working in the private, unsexy, domestic realm of the home.

The job was prestigious but isolating, and often tough. It was also shockingly insecure. I trawled through country house archives, forgotten bundles of letters and scrawled diary entries in search of their faint voices. Forget the cosy, complacent world of Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey. I discovered an unwanted pregnancy, a court case, a prison sentence, and several cases of summary dismissal.

For three long years, while my children were at school, I buried myself in the British Library. Valeria, meanwhile, picked up the pieces, restoring some semblance of order to our home. I leaned heavily on Valeria, and she began to lean on me.

One day she asked for £400. Her cousin in Portugal had died, leaving a two-year-old boy. Valeria had been named custodian: she had to travel to Lisbon and bring the boy back. Where would she keep him? How could she work? This seemed a fantastic tale to me, but what did I know of the unskilled immigrant’s precarious existence? I lent her the money and an old cot – the cot fatally drawing me in. I kept thinking about this child, and how his sudden presence in Valeria’s life was likely to be the undoing of her.

At the same time I was writing the story of a 19th-century housekeeper who lost her job for being pregnant, despite being married. For 14 years Dorothy Doar had worked for Britain’s richest family, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, running their vast Midlands ‘seat’, Trentham Hall. This put her at the top of the ladder for a servant of her era. All she requested was six weeks’ leave to have her baby and put it ‘out to nurse’, but this was judged an inconvenience. The Duchess of Sutherland sacked her.

The Portuguese baby was sent to its grandmother in Brazil (we lent Valeria more money for the flight). Then her husband revealed he’d been having an affair. He walked out with all savings: Valeria was left destitute. She moved from squalid flat to flat, occasionally turning up, smiling bravely, and cleaning. A stress-induced stomach ulcer came next (she is 28) so course she couldn’t keep up her hours. I was sympathetic, but also near the end of my tether. ‘This has got to stop!’ my husband kept saying, as we were let down again and again. ‘Just get another cleaner.’
All her old clients fell away. I’m one of the few to have stuck with Valeria through her ups and downs, often with gritted teeth and mounting desperation. But writing this book has made me more alert to her plight, and the fact that, for women on the bottom rung, very little has changed. Just like Dorothy Doar in 1832, the Valerias of this world still live hand to mouth. Life offers few choices. Illness, family problems, or a dodgy landlord can mean penury.

Mrs Doar had the workhouse, ghastly as that was, when all else failed. But for an immigrant like Valeria, ducking and diving in London’s underbelly, there is no real safety blanket. She has just her employers: capricious middle class women like me, and you.

Would you:
• Leave your cleaner looking after the children while you ‘pop to the shops for 10 minutes’.
• Expect her to combine childcare with cleaning.
• ‘Forget’ to leave her money out.
• Sack her in favour of an Eastern European girl who’ll do it for £5 instead of £10 an hour.
• Get her to clean the entire house on her first visit – then not come home to pay her the money, leaving your partner to disbelieve her story and turf her out.
• Lock her in the house while she cleans and you shop, returning far later than arranged.
All these things have been done to Valeria… by TPPSG members.
The Housekeeper’s Tale by Tessa Boase (Aurum Press, £20) tells the true stories of six working women over 200 years. www.housekeepers-tale.com