Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Upstairs/Downstairs

Since I've started reading more than one book at a time - since I've been writing this blog, really - I've begun to notice similarities between the books. A few weeks ago I realized that through no plan at all I was reading three books that all tied together through the presence of servants. I was reading Miss Pettigrew in which Miss P has worked as a governess and is looking for another post. This book was much too nice to cart back and forth to work so I added The House at Riverton to the mix since it was both portable and a comfort read as I was feeling ill. I also found myself immersed in a nonfiction title, One Pair of Hands. I topped all that off by watching Manor House, also known as The Edwardian Country House in the UK. Manor House is another edition in PBS's house series dealing obviously with Edwardian times and the Upstairs/Downstairs issues that came along with it. I enjoyed the program, though not quite as much as The 1940s House. There are so many people in Manor House it is difficult to get to know them as well. It is a fascinating program though, particularly because it seemed the Lord and Lady of the Manor took to their roles a bit too easily and would have happily lived on in the house. The servants on the other hand had it much worse. It's hard to imagine signing up for this program and just cleaning and cooking for three months straight. Though I think they came out of it with a better understanding of the period.

On to the books.

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton is one of those books that just kept popping up all over the place, mainly on UK blogs. I just knew I had to have this one so I ordered it from The Book Depository though it seems this book is being published now in the US. House at Riverton is told from the point of view of Grace, an elderly woman who went into service as a young girl. She became quite attached to the family and the daughters in particular. At the end of her life she is being interviewed by a film-maker who is working on a project dealing with a suicide at Riverton that drove a divide between the sisters. It is obvious Grace knows something about the suicide that no one else has ever found out. This was an enjoyable read for me but I never fell in love with it. I liked the story and the writing but at times I felt the book was weighed down by dialogue. There is one instance I recall in which the sisters discuss for several pages what color dress to wear - it just didn't seem to move the story along at all. I also felt the ending was a bit abrupt after such a long book. Overall this was a good comfort read and I would recommend it. There is a nice Author's Note at the end with loads of additional reading suggestions about the period.

Monica Dickens was Charles Dickens' great-granddaughter and wrote One Pair of Hands in 1939 after putting herself into service. I was never quite certain how well-to-do her family was, but it seems she was bored with the party scene and was looking for another way to spend her time. Dickens writes about multiple households that she cooks and cleans for and the situations that ensue. On the one hand this is a fascinating book in terms of learning how people lived and ate at that time. So many people had help in their homes, both small and large. It's hard to imagine there being someone else in my home everyday, just a room away, cooking and cleaning up. On the other hand, this is quite the comedy and Dickens' skill in recreating her various employers is brilliant. For me, this book was better read in short bits rather than large, but was overall immensely entertaining.

11 comments:

Iliana said...

I want to read The House at Riverton after hearing so much about it too. Hopefully it will live up to my expectations. You know how that goes after you hear so much about a book :)

StuckInABook said...

What a lovely selection of books - so glad you enjoyed One Pair of Hands (did I help this get into your hands, or had you heard of it somewhere else?) - and you remind me that I bought The House at Riverton on impulse months ago, and haven't come close to reading it yet.

Kay said...

I need to read HOUSE AT RIVERTON soon. I ordered it from Book Depository and then promptly filed it away on a shelf. One day soon.

I know what you mean about Manor House. I liked it but maybe not as much as some of the other settings. I liked 1940's House a lot and I liked Colonial House.

Bybee said...

One Pair Of Hands sounds like a really good read...don't know why, but I'm reminded of Orwell's Down and Out In Paris And London...maybe the "I'm-just-slumming" aspect? Hard to say since I haven't read Monica Dickens' book.

Tara said...

Iliana, I know what you mean and I definitely had high expectations for this book.

Simon, I'm pretty sure I read about One Pair of Hands in one of my many books about books and was excited to see it on your list before I'd dipped into it. It's one of the few or perhaps the only one on your list I had already heard of. Both books definitely seem like books you would enjoy.

Kay, I did the same and was saving it for just the right moment. I haven't seen Colonial House and will have to rectify that!

Bybee, I'm not sure, I haven't read the Orwell. Regarding the slumming, I do enough cooking and cleaning at home to ever do it for anyone else!

Danielle said...

I really liked The House at Riverton. It had its flaws, but overall definitely a good comfort read! I loved watching Manor House--really interesting stuff. I couldn't imagine having people wait on me either, but this family took to it quite easily, didn't they? It was so fascinating. And I know what you mean by books intersecting that way--that happens to me, too! Oh, and I really need to read that Dickens book!

BooksPlease said...

I've read and loved all of these, except Miss Pettigrew. You've inspired me to read it - it's waiting in a pile at the moment.

I read One Pair of Hands a long time ago - a re-read would be great, if I can find it. I can't imagine being waited on either and certainly not by someone living-in!

Strange how we pick books unconsciously and find links and similar themes.

Cath said...

Like Booksplease I read One Pair of Hands years ago and One Pair of Feet. You don't see either over here these days, whereas when I was young they were in every library.

The Edwardian House was an excellent series. Stupidly, I didn't watch the 1940s one so I'm hoping they'll repeat it sometime.

I too have taken to reading several books at once but only this year. I went back to reading one book at a time a couple of times and found I didn't like it at all. I'm pretty sure blogging has done this to me.

Tara said...

Danielle, I couldn't believe it when the family cried when they left the house. Such an odd family? I wonder if they still call the father Sir John..

Booksplease, the links between books just keep coming for me! I hope you can find your copy of Dickens' book..I have One Pair of Feet waiting for me.


Cath, that's interesting - I got my copies from an online swap from a big Dickens fan - she had a whole stack of her books. I also cannot imagine having only one book going at a time now. Funny how that has changed.

Carrie K said...

I love the House series. I think The Manor House is my favorite though. It was fun watching the privileged in the series come to feel as if they were to the manor born properly.

Sorry to hear about your earaches and sickly woes!

Nan - said...

I wanted so, so badly to like Riverton but gave it up, just quit it not too far into the book. I kept thinking, ho hum, I've heard this story. I already know it. It looked so beautiful, and it is a period I love, but...
Have you ever read Brideshead Revisited? Now, that is a book. One of my top faves of all time. I also like the original tv version with Jeremy Irons, and am not sure I can watch the new version.