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....



  1. Stephanie, always enjoy reading your blog entries and look forword to each month's new take on your novels. Also looking forward to the novel out this autumn. Thank you for making history exciting! I'm currently reading The Tudors, by G.J. Meyer and my goodness, there is so much fodder for mystery within that dynasty! Quite a tangled web, actually. I love though. Happy Spring!

  2. "The absurdities of Edward Cooper are one of the delights, for me, of this book."

    I completely agree! Well done.

  3. Just to drop a line to say that i love your books. You channel Austen like she's the real thing. I think a woman who could write the novels she did would have a rapier wit, would love deeply and strongly and longsufferingly beneath her respectable exterior of a clergyman's daughter. And I also think you carry that through remarkably well.

  4. Thanks for the support! It means a lot when anyone spends their precious reading time on my books--

  5. Ms. Barron--thank you for sharing the details about the research you do for each of your novels. I look forward to each month's blog post. Can't wait to read the newest novel out this autumn! I'm currently reading The Tudors and it is quite the fodder for mystery, as countless versions over the years have illustrated. But mystery makes history fun :)

  6. Thanks, Olivia. I've found that the Tudor period gives me the willies, frankly! Just finished "Wolf Hall," which I thought was brilliant, but the arbitrary nature of power and death in that time is chilling.

    Must apologize to all those who posted comments here previously--the Blogger service underwent some sort of hiccup this week, and most posts were lost. All the best!

  7. I continue to delight in how seamlessly, Ms. Barron, you unite fact and fiction.

    Reading Maid sent me to the computer more than once: to determine whether Swithin was more than a saint, for Desdemona is so engaging, and to verify that the title of chapter 9 was indeed Mrs. Gardiner's dismissal of the Pemberley house in preference of its grounds.

    I admit, too, for a preference for garnering history from novels though I am aware of the inherent limitations of such a practice. Having read Foreman's biography of the Duchess of Devonshire some years ago, I recognize some of the political allusions, though I was struck by the Whig party's inception and your explantation of their idealogical conflict with the Tories—the Whigs, it would seem, explicitly opposed the Tories' view of rule by divine right in favor of rule by the consent of the governed. Your sardonic account of the Whigs' distinction between people of wealth and “common rabble” perhaps reveals Tory sympathies not unlike the Austen family's, a sentiment those of us who recently watched William meet Kate in Westminster might share.

    The excerpts of "Miss Arnold's Stillroom book" were an added dimension of pleasure: though generally willing to give at least some credence to the increasingly lost art of herbal remedies, I feel fairly certain that her advice for “the getting of sons” was the most efficacious of Miss Arnold's prescriptions, bound to produce the desired result fifty percent of the time. I'm struck with how vast a stillroom's stock must have been, how seemingly difficult to have such a collection with the limited travel and access to resources. And though a teetotaler, I might almost prefer the “dose of strong spirits” advised so amusingly after the directions for the cock sparrow brain laced courage tart.

    Finally, Lord Harold's silencing of Mr. Cooper's singing (p195 of my version of the book) was a hoot! In Trowbridge indeed is one worthy of Jane Austen, but here the line between fact and fiction is too well known insofar as Austen's marital status. Had the characters all been fictitious, and of Austen or Heyer's creation, our heroine would have had the ending, alas, that your bit of ivory cannot.

    By the way, I wonder whether I've read Ch. 9 aright: did Trowbridge and Austen set out in a landau but arrive at Chatsworth in a curricle?

    Thank you for such a fun romp--

  8. I have no idea whether they set out in a landau and arrived in curricle, but it's entirely possible, Darcy! I'll have to go back and check. Regardless of how may eyes scrub the text before it's published, these things tend to escape. It has been pointed out to me, for example, that a fowling piece--the weapon that allegedly killed Tess Arnold--is in fact a shotgun, not a pistol....*SIGH*

  9. I have to confess, I was tempted to try one of the recipes. I don't think I would have actually tried it, mind you.

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