Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Anatomising Jane: The Stillroom Maid

For any person with a knowledge of history, traveling in Derbyshire is an emotional venture.  It was here that an entire village quarantined itself, the inhabitants slowly dying of the plague, in an extraordinary act of communal stoicism that is creatively reimagined in Geraldine Brooks's novel, Year of Wonders.  In Derbyshire, too, is Thomas Banks's masterpiece, a marble statue of little Penelope Boothby, which draws countless visitors to Ashbourne Church.  The child died at the age of five in 1793, and the anguished inscription of her parents is profoundly moving:
She was in form and intellect most exquisite.  The unfortunate parents ventured their all on this frail Bark.  And the wreck was total.

Penelope rests on her side, cheek cradled by a pillow, her hands cupped beneath her chin; the very image of a sleeping child.  The statue is heartbreaking.  We're told people mourned their dead children less in past centuries, because mortality rates were so high; but this is clearly false comfort.  I carried the image of Penelope in my mind as I toured Derbyshire, and the death of children wound its way into the plot of The Stillroom Maid.
Derbyshire boasts the great estate of Chatsworth, of course--still haunted by the ghost of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and the extraordinary risks she took at the gaming tables and beyond; haunted, too, by the memory of Kick Kennedy, Jack's little sister, who married Devonshire's heir Billy Hartington in 1944, in the teeth of family outrage, only to have him killed by a German sniper five weeks later.  Kick died tragically young and is buried in the Devonshire plot at Edensour, a few miles from Chatsworth; but her puckish grin still blazes from the portrait gallery's walls. 

In a story that revolves around Lord Harold Trowbridge, second son of a duke and Rogue-About-Town, it was impossible not to use Chatsworth--it was a center of Whig politics in Jane Austen's day, and Lord Harold was nothing if not a Whig.  He would certainly have known the Incomparable Georgiana, who has recently died at the opening of this book.  From Lord Harold to Jane, dancing at Chatsworth, is but a step. 

Jane describes the little town of Bakewell, three miles from Chatsworth, in some critical chapters of Pride and Prejudice.  But as I mention in the introduction to Jane and the Stillroom Maid, most Austen scholars assume Jane never saw Derbyshire at all, because no letter exists dated from the county.  Some of us suspect otherwise.  She writes about the Peak District as she wrote about Lyme Regis in Persuasion, with the sort of contained passion for a place she lovedAs a writer myself, I find it categorically unlikely that she would choose to place Pemberley, much less the pivotal encounter between Darcy and Elizabeth, in a place she'd never seen.  d'Arcy was the family name of the Earls of Holderness, local to Derbyshire.

A wall placque in The Rutland Arms in Bakewell declares that Jane Austen stayed there during the summer of 1811, but that is unlikely--the family record has her elsewhere.  She might, however, have visited in 1806, while staying with her cousin Edward Cooper in neighboring Staffordshire.  During Jane's six-week visit to the parsonage at Hamstall Ridware, the numerous Cooper progeny contracted a virulent strain of whooping cough, and it seems plausible that Cousin Edward might suggest a side-trip for his guests to the beauties of Matlock and Dove Dale, while his children hacked away at home under the harassed attentions of his long-suffering wife.  The absurdities of Edward Cooper are one of the delights, for me, of this book.

Thus, the setting of The Stillroom Maid. 

Murder, however?  And maids?

The plot arose from various influences.  Chief among them was a portrait I saw in a country-house hotel outside of Bath.  I'd stayed at Ston Easton Park while researching The Genius of the Place--the beautiful Palladian-style house still boasted the remnants of a garden designed by Humphrey Repton, and the owners had one of Repton's famous Red Books, outlining his proposed changes, in their library.  In another room, however, hung a group portrait of the servants resident during Jane Austen's time.  Among them were the housekeeper--a truculent looking middle-aged woman in a white cap--the steward, a dark and wiry fellow with a determined jaw--and the stillroom maid.  Her hands were folded and her gaze was demure; but her gaze was suggestive.  She was young, and her features were delicate. She was flirting with the painter. 

I asked about the portrait--was it usual to commission a study of one's servants?

"There's a story about that," the Ston Easton staffer confided.  "Apparently the steward had an affair with the stillroom maid, and the housekeeper murdered her in a fit of jealous rage."

In the Austen household, Cassandra served as stillroom maid.  The stillroom was where produce was preserved, fruit wines were made, and simple medicines were distilled.  Hence the term, "still room."  A stillroom book would have been a household's compilation of both recipes and remedies. 

I've researched and reconstructed a number of stillroom receipts for my character, Tess Arnold.  But I feel compelled to add, in the interest of my readers' health:  Don't try these at home....