A fictional tale of life as a 1930s scullery maid – written by Sienna James.
I have been working at Ickworth for a month now; and I suppose you could call me settled in. I’m not really, but when everybody asks the question that is supposed to be kind, I answer that yes, of course I am happy here. I’m not. I wish I was back in Derbyshire with mama and my older brother James, in our little cottage in Bakewell.
Today I could not stop thinking of home. Every little thing reminded me of it. The brown china bowl, the smell of sticky dried fruit, the feel of breadcrumbs beneath my fingers. I remembered baking with Mama when I was a small child, when she had recovered her grief over Father and before she met Mr Fairfax.
My father died of his old war wounds a few months before my birth; I never knew him. That alone makes me sad. James knew him, and he tells me plenty of stories, but that is not really enough. So when Mama and Mr Fairfax married – I cannot think of him as ‘papa’, that is impossible – she sent James and I away. It was evident she was taken up with the idea of being on a new estate with her new husband and new surroundings, and wanted us both to go away, as we must have been reminding her too much of her old husband, my father.
I must try not to think of our old home and mama – I doubt she is thinking of me – and must concentrate on my new life at Ickworth. I am the newly employed scullery maid, the very lowest ranking of the servants. James has found a job on a nearby farm in Hawkedon, he must be working very hard on the harvest at this time of year. We meet when I get a half-day off, and he seems to be enjoying his work.
The work in the kitchen is so tiring! Being a scullery maid, you are on your feet the whole day. We don’t have to rise as early as the housemaids, thankfully, but I still have to get up earlier than I did in Derbyshire. There, I now realise, I had a blissful life.
I went to the local school when I was younger but in the past few years I have not bothered. All the knowledge I need I will hopefully have acquired. I used to stay at home and perform menial tasks while James and Mama went to work in the big house. I would have time for my drawing and painting. I would do pleasant things: pick flowers in the summer and blackberries in the autumn, and walk to meet James when he returned from work; striding across the fields.
But I suppose I have a job now; I cannot expect everything to be the same as it was before. Because it won’t ever be now, I suppose. I still cannot get used to Mama married. Just writing that seems unreal. But I still have James – I know he will always care for me should he need to. Perhaps I’ll see him next weekend, when I get a half-day off.
The men-folk were all harvesting the corn and the crops on the estate today, and there is enough straw around to thatch a cottage twice over. All the dust that floated in the air made me sneeze – and it was so terribly hot in the kitchen I’m sure my face was as bright as a peony. I could have done with some of the cool ale that Jim and Albert, the odd-men, took out to the workers. It reminded me of the harvest in the fields around us in Bakewell.
I wonder how Mama is getting on by herself. I feel strange and sick when I think about the cosiness of our cottage compared to the huge scale of the house I live in now. Even in June when the sun shines into the windows it doesn’t seem as warm as our little home; it feels empty and cold, as though there isn’t enough furniture to fill the space.
Mama has moved into the next village and I doubt that she will go back and remind herself of the war or the grief. No one will have replaced the flowers on Father’s grave, the ones I last put there will be brown and withered now. With all the apprehension of moving away, I did not speak to our neighbours before we left for Suffolk, and so I couldn’t even ask Mrs Heffney to check the grave every so often.
I wished I could have gone for a wander today! The sky was so blue and smooth – all it needed was a little polish and those clouds would have vanished. I wanted to paint the sky deep azure, and the fields around a sunny gold. I begged Maggie, who is apparently supervising me, if I could go for a short walk after dinner but she didn’t allow me. She said I was too young to go out alone – I am fourteen – and she said she did not want to accompany me, as she was tired from the day. I am not too young! I walked alone through Bakewell all the time! I don’t see how Ickworth is any different. Perhaps I can walk tomorrow.
It is the next day and I managed to slip away for a walk, after the servants had eaten dinner. I did not ask Maggie for she would have refused to let me go, but nobody said I had to ask her. It was that time of the evening after light but before darkness comes.
Annoyingly, I forgot to take my sketchbook with me and so I had no way of capturing the long, stretched shadows over the fields. I did not realise how vast the Ickworth estate it, and also how striking. For the first time, I felt proud that I worked for such a naturally beautiful place.
As it was another hard day in the kitchen, panting and sweating, it was such a relief to get outside into the cool evening air. I enjoyed it immensely; I hope to get out tomorrow night too, it relaxes me before sleeping, I think.
We made meat and vegetable pasties in the kitchen today, to take out to the men in the fields. Head Cook didn’t let me near the pasties. She doesn’t trust me yet with all her precious food, I don’t think. She trusts Lily and Maggie but not me, I have only been here a few months. The other two have been here a couple of years at the very least.
Scouring all the pots and dishes was the main thing I did today, as well as washing vegetables for the pasties. Cook let Maggie spoon the jam into the tarts and she was even allowed outside, lucky thing, to cut some fresh basil for the cheese. James says I am impatient, that I won’t wait for anything, but I don’t think I am. I think I just get frustrated when people think I am not capable of something I know I am capable of.
Lily has just come in; she stopped to talk in Rose and Florence’s room. She and I share a room; it is probably around the same size as my bedroom was in Derbyshire, but of course I did not have to share that with anyone.
They were probably all chatting about the new footman, Laurence. He is definitely a success with Mrs Seddons, the housekeeper, already. Actually everyone likes him. He is a young footman; he is in great demand with all the housemaids. I only spoke a ‘how do you do’ to him, but he seemed amiable enough. He has an interesting face: a hard chin and eyes that are deep in their sockets, and curling black hair. He must be quite young really, for his frame is still boyish. I would have liked to draw him but I don’t have time anymore.
I have had a few minutes of time to write my journal but now I’m going to dinner, and afterwards I’ll hopefully go for a quick walk.
I did manage to slip out for one of my strolls, but this time I wasn’t alone. I bumped into Laurence, the new footman.
“Hello, Ariana.” He noticed me first, I had my back turned to him and was gazing out over the estate.
“Hello. What are you doing out? You don’t usually come out at this time of an evening.”
He shrugged. “I needed to stretch my legs. Sometimes it gets so stuffy in the servants’ hall, don’t you think?”
I could hardly reply to that, for I thought it was empty and dull, compared to the cosiness of our old cottage. Perhaps he had lived in a big house before coming to work here. “Yes,” I answered eventually. “It does get warm.”
Laurence turned to look out over the golden fields, green trees and hedgerows. “Isn’t Ickworth beautiful?”
“So beautiful,” I replied earnestly, for I think that every evening on my walk. “And the fields look so smooth at this time of year, before they are ploughed and when they are all yellow.”
He nodded silently and looked almost sad, as though it wouldn’t take much for him to cry.
“Are you alright, Laurence?” I asked, for he looked a little strange.
“Oh, yes, I’m fine. But I’ll return now. See you later, Arianna.” He smiled briefly, and then strode quickly down the path back to the servants’ hall.
Aparently – this is what Lily heard from Florence – he has lived in Bury St Edmunds since he was a child, with his parents and two older sisters. I don’t know how she gets all this information, probably from the housemaids. I can hear them talking now, but I’ll be asleep soon, I’m so exhausted.
I enjoyed today. Maggie had taken her half-day off, and had gone to see her family in Bury, and so I was given more tasks to perform in the kitchen. It was pleasant to be given a break from the washing up – all I seem to do is wash dishes for hours on end. And by the time the day is over my back aches terribly.
I had straightened briefly from the sink to rub my neck when the head cook, who seemed to be in a rare good mood, summoned me. She handed me a large wicker basket and asked me to go down to the walled garden and pick tomatoes for a pudding. I wasn’t sure about the sound of a tomato pudding, but any break from washing-up was welcome, so I fetched my coat and ambled down. It was glorious to walk during work hours, not having to sneak away after dinner.
When my basket was full with round, shining tomatoes I walked along the rich, vibrant flower borders of the walled garden. The vegetable patches overflowed with bright green and dark red lettuces, and the gardeners had evidently sown their carrots late as an inch of orange was visible beneath the earthy green leaves. It was a beautiful place, with a lake before me and from there a meadow where sheep grazed. Rolling and smooth, one meadow fell into another and from there the land seemed to rise into a dense forest.
When I returned to the kitchen and began scrubbing again, Jim and Albert were trying to persuade Laurence to ride the bike through the servants’ corridors over to the east side of the basement. But he was evidently unconvinced.
Laurence stood stubbornly, his arms folded across his chest, looking disbelievingly at Jim. “No, I will not. That bicycle looks as though it could fall apart at any moment.”
“Go on, Laurence,” I teased, feeling happy and refreshed from my stroll. I stopped washing a moment and leant against the kitchen doorframe.
Laurence turned to face me, smiling. “Arianna, would you like to ride this rickety, rusty thing all the way to the east wing?”
Luckily, I was saved a reply when the head cook called my name sharply and scolded me for neglecting my duties. I should have known not to stop my washing, so I apologised as meekly as I could and returned to the dishes. But it cheered me to think I had another friend here, aside from Lily. Jim and Albert are always friendly and amiable and so is Maggie, if you get her in a good mood, so I suppose I am beginning to fit in. That’s a nice feeling, but sometimes I feel so low in the ranks that I can hardly speak to anyone else apart from those who are on equal terms.
I think I’m beginning to enjoy Ickworth life. Both the people and the land around seemed so strange and different at first, but not anymore. I think I’m beginning to like it. What would I say if Mama invited me back to Bakewell to live with her and Mr Fairfax? I’m not so sure I would return to Bakewell now.
It is my half-day off tomorrow. I’m not quite sure what to do. Sometimes I see James at the farm and other days I walk down to the Fairy Lake and sit peacefully. Being in the kitchens is so hectic I usually just want to sleep. But I must be getting used to the chaos of it all, because tomorrow I feel like going somewhere. Doing something. Some of the housemaids are going to the pictures in Bury to see Top Hat, but I don’t want to waste an autumn day indoors. Even though the weather is blowing and raining, the forecast tomorrow is for sun.
Cook told me that the housemaids always go to the pictures in the autumn, when it is too cold to sit and gossip in the Abbey Gardens. I asked Lily about the Abbey Gardens, and she said it is a public park that used to be a monk’s monastery before King Henry the Eighth burned it down. I thought it sounded quite interesting – I have never been to a ruin – so I have decided I will go there tomorrow.
Earlier today Jim brought in the pheasants which the upstairs guests shot down this morning. The shooting season has well and truly begun – I was plucking pheasants from noon until supper today, all the fluff floating around and making me cough and sneeze. Maggie whispered to me that these feathers sell well at a market, so maybe I should keep some and try to earn a little more money!
I’ve never been squeamish about plucking birds or animals – less so than James, who is three years older than me – and Lily shied away from the task immediately. I felt quite superior, plucking away all those feathers from the pheasant. Even Mrs Finkle made a face at the dead birds, and of course all the housemaids were complaining about the smell. But I scrunched up my nose and ignored it. I cannot wait for my half-day off tomorrow!
I had such fun on my afternoon today. I went on the bus to Bury with all the others, there were six of us all together. I spoke quite amiably with Milly on the way, and a couple of the housemaids seemed nice enough too. Of course, I could never speak to them in the servant’s quarters. They wouldn’t want to speak to me. But when we were in the bus with no uniform, all wearing similar clothes and all chattering about similar things, it seemed as though the barriers had been dropped. And Laurence was there too – getting on very well with Florrie.
The housemaids, Laurence and another footman Martin, went off to the pictures while I strolled through Bury to find the Abbey Gardens. It was so beautiful, especially in the low glowing October sun. The grass was still damp from yesterday’s rain and drops of silver moisture glimmered on the emerald grass. The path wove through like a ribbon, lined with trees which were gradually turning to dusky fire-side orange. The actual ruins of the abbey were strange – memories made of stone. Some were low mounds but others were tall walls with gaps that looked as though windows had once peered through.
I spent a pleasant few hours drawing and observing the park. Pleased with my sketches – I will probably send one to Mama with my next letter – I returned on the earlier bus than the housemaids and footmen. Of course the gardens were pretty, but they could not compare with the grounds of Ickworth.
“Enjoy the Abbey Gardens?” Maggie has just asked me.
“Yes,” I replied. “It was a lovely afternoon, but nice to get back here.”
“Did you know the first Marquess of Bristol owned the Abbey Gardens? Quite interesting, isn’t it.”
I was surprised at that. To think that the man who used to own the Abbey Gardens also owned the estate where I now work – the place I now call home.
November 6, 1935
I have never seen fireworks before last night – it was quite a sight! Almost all of the servants gathered outside in the grounds by the scorching bonfire, wrapped up in woolly scarfs and coats. Luckily, what with all the rain we have been having so far this month, it was a clear night so I could see the starts brightly overhead.
Everyone was jolly – Maggie giggled under the depths of her scarf, Mrs Finkle wore an indulgent smile and when I spotted Laurence amongst the housemaids he grinned and gave me a big wave.
When the fireworks started they were magnificent. When I was younger, in Bakewell, sometimes James and I would peer out of the attic window to try and spot fireworks from the big house on the hill, but we only ever saw the tips of white light.
These fireworks were something new to me and as they started my heart gave a great thump at the noise. I gave a little squeal and shoved my fingers into my ears. After a moment I became used to the “bang” and began to realise their beauty – they lit up the sky in a scatter of great, golden light. Like stars falling.
“Goodness!” breathed Lily, her cheeks rosy red as the fireworks lit up the Rotunda and left wisps of orange smoke in the inky sky.
Papa was in my thoughts for much of the day and I just need to have my feelings down on paper. It somehow clarifies things for me.
At eleven o’clock this morning we remembered the fallen and I found tears rising up behind my eyes as I thought of home. I wondered how Mother was thinking of Father, now she has a new husband. I never knew Papa, but that does not mean I cannot love him. James loved him and that is enough for me – James knows who is good and he says Papa was a noble and worthy man.
Now I’m lying in bed scribbling this and remembering what Father did for the War. Although he survived after fighting in Ypres, he was wounded on the Front Lines and scarred for the remainder of his short life.
I just hope James will never have to face terror and cruelty like Father had to. I will pray for Father once I’ve turned the lamp down. It is right to remember all of the soldiers who died for us. I wouldn’t be here in this grand house if we hadn’t won, so I’ll be thankful for that.
November 27, 1935
As I write this I’m sitting by the fire in the servants’ hall. Maggie is next to me, flicking through a magazine and Ava is opposite, writing to her brothers, both oblivious to me.
In a way, I’m really the one to blame for what happened today. But they didn’t have to make me feel so stupid! I was exhausted! I was aching too, and longing for something more exciting than washing dishes. It was only a small thing, but now I feel as though my confidence has been broken.
The kitchen was becoming heated as the dish the Cook had prepared for the family upstairs was taking longer than expected, and so she was in a terrible temper. And then two of the housemaids Ava and Connie “had the cheek” – that’s how Cook put it – to ask when the servants’ dinner would be served and when to bring the trolley through. I’m surprised they left the kitchen alive.
Of course, I was washing up. I haven’t done anything else for the last three days and I was completely fed up with it all. With Cook’s temper, with the heat from the fires, the noise, the sores on my hands, Maggi’s voice as she told me to hurry up, and my back which was aching from stooping over the sink. Making a mumbled excuse, which apparently Maggie didn’t hear, I escaped for a minute and made myself a cup of tea. I shouldn’t have. I was being disobedient. But I did it anyway.
When Maggie found me I was sitting on a bench drinking tea. So foolish of me! She gave me a grand ticking off, and some of the housemaids who were in the hall started to giggle. Maggie said later that I should be very glad it was her and not Mrs Seddons who found me. But she got herself into a terrible rage and marched off to tell Cook, who scolded me badly – shouting at one point about how scullery maids need to learn their lowly place in life. I feel so humiliated and such a fool.
“You hadn’t even earnt a break!” Cook exclaimed afterwards, two patches of red on her cheeks.
I should never had become so comfortable here! Right now, I feel like running away from everything – like Jane Eyre when she ran away from Mr Rochester. Poor Jane slept on the moors and made up a new name when she found sanctuary at last. I remember that story so well – a neighbour lent it to me in Bakewell. Jane is such a such a strong and powerful character! But I cannot run away – there are no moors nearby, just miles and miles of park and woodland all part of the Ickworth Estate.
I wonder, now, where my home is! In the first few months I knew I had left “home” behind in Bakewell. But then I became happy hear and Ickworth began to feel like it was meant to be. I am surrounded by strangers and I cannot understand, now, how I could have felt included in their lives when they are all so different to me. Higher in the ‘pecking order’ – that’s how James would put it. Apparently chickens have a hierarchy too – they peck at the lowest hens! That’s what I felt like today – peck, peck, peck. I wish James and I could meet more often. He always makes things better – but our days of rarely coincide.
I’m no longer sure who my friends are now. I had thought my friends were Maggie and Lily and Laurence, but Maggie is the one who told Cook, Laurence is too busy flirting with the housemaids and Lily doesn’t seem to be bothered that I am hurt. I do wish I was back home in Bakewell!
At the moment I’m writing in bed. It is freezing up here. I feel like a little dormouse, curled up under all the covers in a nest. I’m warm enough now but if I move a limb the cold comes rushing back.
I’ve always known about John Mayhew the hall-boy but until now I never really made the connection that he is the exact same rank as me. Just like how the footmen are the same rank as the housemaids, and the valets are equivalent to the ladies’ maids.
John came into the kitchen on an errand this morning, whilst I was on my knees scrubbing at the tiles – it is a chore I hate as it’s so difficult to scrub the uneven floor. My hair gets in my face and my hands red from the boiling water.
“Hello, Arianna,” he started, his brown face friendly but unsure. He smelt of shoe polish and carbolic soap.
“Good morning, John.” I continued to scrub away, otherwise Mrs Finkle or Maggie would be at me again, I was sure.
He stood over me a moment longer then turned and went to the window, where he had to collect the laundry basket for Jim.
“What are you baking today?” he asked.
“Oh, I won’t be baking anything. I’ll be washing up as normal.”
John grinned. The creases in his cheeks made me think that he grinned often. “At least you don’t have to polish a hundred pairs of boots every morning or sweep out a thousand fires!”
“Anything to get out of this kitchen, trust me.”
He stepped closer and held a finger to his lips, his eyes amused. “Don’t let Mrs Seddons hear you – she scolded me yesterday for slouching when I walk. The old-”
We both looked at one another for a moment and then John began to laugh. Picking up the laundry basket, he scurried out of the kitchen with his head down like he was a schoolgirl in disgrace. He made me giggle, if I’m honest. I think he’s probably quite funny to be around. He seems like that type to me. A bit like my brother James was when he was fifteen, really.
I should stop writing now as there will be another early start tomorrow. And washing up – more of it now Christmas is coming nearer. The ball is in a couple of weeks! I am so excited – it will be the first time I’ve been upstairs into the house. The housemaids go up to dust every few days but scullery-maids are always stuck in the kitchen.
31 December 1935
The servants’ ball was bliss! I didn’t realise until a few days before that you were allowed to bring a guest, so I scribbled a quick note to my brother James – he is the only person I know outside of Ickworth – and prayed it would reach him in time. Luckily it did, and he caught a ride to Ickworth on the back of a cart. I had to brush a bit of straw off him when he arrived – I couldn’t have him disgracing me in front of Lord and Lady Bristol.
I think I’ll write the events of the evening from beginning to end so I can re-read it again and again. I was so excited in the afternoon beforehand that I thought I might burst.
“Let me fix that curl for you, Arianna.”
I was speechless when Miss Petcher – she is Lady Somerleyton’s maid – came up behind me whilst I was struggling with my abundance of black curls. In a few deft movements, she had twisted it up into a respectable knot on the top of my head and secured it with pins.
“Thank you ma’am,” I stuttered, not looking her in the eyes. That’s what Lily told me to do with the senior servants.
She gave a smile and swept away – the ladies maids’ gowns are so much more stylish than those of the scullery maids!
With my hair styled by skilled hands that dress the hair of proper ladies I felt ready for the ball. Would Laurence ask me to dance? Would I be limited to a dance with John and my brother? Would I sit at the side, unnoticed, as I was the youngest of the servants? What would it be like upstairs? What would it be like when Lord Bristol took Mrs Seddons for the first dance?
The Rotunda is absolutely
magneficent magnificent. I can barely describe the cool marble pillars, the ornate carvings, the stunning colours, the smell of candle wax, the soft padding of our footsteps on the wooden floor, the absolute wealth and beauty that surrounded me…
James raised his eyebrows and whispered in my ear, “bit too posh for us Blackburns, eh Arianna? Different to Bakewell!”
It was lovely to have him with me, looking smart in shirtsleeves and waistcoat – to share little glances across the floor and laugh at his comical faces. I remember how much I miss him, even though he is not as far away as Mama.
When Lord Bristol danced with Mrs Seddons I had to conceal a grin. She seemed more graceful, more affable, when she was in his arms. I wonder if that would happen to me if I danced with an aristocrat. Briefly I allowed myself to imagine a young man on a white steed galloping towards me across the Ickworth estate. No. The fantasy was over in a moment and I returned to reality. I suppose the basement staff aren’t too bad really.
One dance with James…
Two dances with John…
One dance sitting out, looking up at the huge Christmas tree which towered above us…
One dance with Laurence…
One dance with Jim…
I’ll savour the evening forever. I remember laughing in a giddy way when I spotted Martin trying to get fresh with Connie, and when James pulled one of his faces I felt dizzy with happiness.
When I sat for that one dance I was suddenly aware of this coming to a close. All of us had worked doubly hard through the Christmas week as it is prime hunting season and, of course, we had to get everything ready for the family’s party. We hadn’t had the chance to celebrate until now.
Christmas Day was a week ago yesterday and since then I have been recalling this time last year. We were all preparing for Mama’s wedding in the Spring. James and I were still getting to know Mr. Fairfax. We had a little Christmas tree in the hallway and I remember cutting out gingerbread men and James icing them. Last year Father Christmas brought me an orange, some chocolate and new hair ribbons for church – this year Mama sent me a sixpence in a Christmas card and told me to spend it on a new apron. I don’t think so! I’ve got a little tin box in my bedroom labelled ‘hat fund’ – now I’m earning I hope it won’t be too long before I can buy myself a summer straw bonnet.
Yesterday evening was very special. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was looking their best in pretty frocks and smart jackets. Everyone was just having a good time and it was lovely to see. I was sad when I had to say goodbye to James at the end of the ball – I do wish we could see one another more often.
So, now I’m going to turn down the lamp and dream of it all before I go to sleep. I wish we could have a ball every night – but then I don’t suppose it would be as special. Oh, I just wish I could get a jam jar from the scullery and savour all the excitement and enjoyment from last night. The whole night smelled of jam! Then, every time I feel lonely or tired I can open the lid, have a little sniff, and remind myself of my very first ball!
It’s a freezing night at Ickworth so Lily and I decided to head upstairs to our little attic room early. Whilst I write, she is flicking through a fashion magazine and keeps pointing out all the glamorous models.
“The next time I hear of a dance in Horringer,” she said with determination, “I’m going to make myself a stylish new dress. I’m fed up with being covered in sweat and dust and smells from the kitchens all day – I want to look as beautiful as Wallis Simpson.”
“Wallis Simpson?” I giggled. “If you want to look like her, Mrs Seddons will have something to say.”
“But look at her!” Lily held up the magazine to show me a picture. Wallis Simpson was so long and slender it looked as though she’d been pulled lengthways by her hair and toes. “Doesn’t she look so sophisticated and elegant?”
“She may be elegant but she’s ever so skinny,” I replied. “I can’t keep a figure like that when I eat a huge breakfast of Mrs Finkle’s eggs every morning.”
Lily laughed and wriggled deeper under the covers. “Well, you were a little slip of a thing when you first came here. Nobody can deny the highlight of working here is the delicious food. But I’ve decided, Arianna, to get a sweetheart. No matter whether I’m as skinny as Wallis Simpson or not. And he’ll ride down the drive every day on his bicycle to deliver me a posy of flowers freshly plucked from the meadows.”
I laughed at that. What servant girl doesn’t dream of a handsome lad courting her? I like being in the bubble of the Ickworth kitchens but sometimes I wish I could be a housemaid for once and get to frolic about with the footmen. But there’s hardly any time to focus on romance when life here is so hectic. Strangely, though, I like the routine the way it is. I wouldn’t want it altered.
I’ve just flicked back through this journal. From the time I started writing in June when I came to Ickworth, to now: a new year. I have learned so much during those seven months – about my situation as a scullery maid and also about the workings of the kitchen here. Mrs Finkle sometimes calls me over to watch her make a special sauce or whip up a seasonal pudding. Perhaps one day I’ll make a kitchen maid like Lily and not bend over the sink all day. But for the moment it seems unlikely as I am the youngest here. I suppose that means I’ll just have to try hard if I want to climb the ranks. Who knows, maybe one day in years to come I’ll be head-cook and in charge of the whole kitchen? I have just laughed out loud at the thought of it.
I’ve pasted this letter from my dear brother James into my diary. One day I’ll tease him about it terribly. He does seem so lovesick!
I don’t suppose life at Ickworth is much different since I last wrote – more dishes, I expect? I hope you’ve got lots of blankets at night, the frost doesn’t half bite at the farm. I knew bringing Granny’s old woollen quilt down from Derbyshire would be useful in the winter.
I haven’t got heaps of time to pen this letter. I have to be out in the paddock fetching the horses in a few minutes, so I’ll get down to the subject quickly. Fact is, Arianna, I’ve decided to go a-wooing. Only Valentine’s Day once a year! And I’m going to make the most of it.
Her name is Charlotte and she is the sister of Joe here on the farm. Joe’s a decent old bean and he invited me to their little cottage one evening. His father, you see, is a tenant of the farm and they live about a mile away. Charlotte Vaughn is such a smashing girl and I’m quite sure you two would be friends instantly. Of course, she is three years older than you, but it’s only two months until your fifteenth birthday. She really is marvellous, Arianna, and I would dearly like her to be my Valentine this year.
The reason I am writing is to ask your opinion on how best to woo her. That’s what sisters are for! What do you think, Arianna? Flowers? Sweetmeats? Poems? Chocolates? I remember you used to tell me that soppy old story. Shakespeare, wasn’t it? Well, I would rather not act the Romeo and call up to dear old Juliette from the farm’s dung heap. But don’t girls like that sort of thing? Put yourself in Charlotte’s shoes, sister, and try to imagine what would make you happy on Valentine’s Day.
Make sure to reply soon. Do take pity on the struggling, lovesick heart of your brother and give me some needed advice! Who knows, perhaps I’ll have a sweetheart on Friday after all… Can you imagine? Your clumsy older brother parading around with a smashingly pretty girl? I must say the idea makes me chortle, so you must be in fits of giggles.
Love as always,
What can I say? James and Charlotte. Perhaps I should get used to those two names together. I had never really considered that James might get a sweetheart one day. He’s just always been my older brother, and although he is four years older than I am, we’ve always been the best of friends. We became especially close after Papa’s death and then when Mr Fairfax came into our lives. I’m glad James asked my advice instead of writing to him! God forbid! I’ll never forget those days before the wedding when Mr Fairfax refused us admittance to the larder and pantry, just in case we young, foolish children should dare touch the cake. He was a brute!
Anyway, the whole affair with Charlotte finds me wishing him well and yet wishing he hadn’t discovered her. See, I rather fancied myself in the role of matchmaker. The next time James visited Ickworth, I was going to try and introduce him to one of the housemaids -maybe Flo, Carrie or Rose. Of course, I suspected that would have been thought as getting ‘above my station’, but it was a nice thought to occupy my mind while I washed dishes. Yet it doesn’t matter now and I feel rather mournful about it all.
I have not yet heard back from James so I don’t know whether Charlotte is his sweetheart or not. I hope my advice for a posy of wildflowers with a pretty card worked the trick. I am curious to meet her and I find myself wondering at such silly things like the colour of her hair or the sound of her voice. Is she a hearty girl with a Suffolk accent and round, rosy cheeks? Or is she a girl who has a laugh like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings and wears gowns of pure white?
I do wish he would reply so I can know how it all went!
Nancy Wilcox – what a name! Flouncing, flirting, fooling around as though she owns Ickworth instead of Lord Bristol. She is, to use Mrs Finkle’s word, an absolute hoyden.
What I don’t understand – apart from how she gets away with her rouguish roguish attitude towards work – is how she came to be kitchen maid at all. I know I am not always a perfect scullery maid. Cook says I am always slow when washing the dishes, never seem to chop the right amount of vegetables and so far every sauce has turned out lumpy. As for plucking pheasants, I still have to bite back revolt. But nevertheless, I’ve worked hard for the nine months I’ve been here. Yet now this girl waltzes into Ickworth and becomes a kitchen maid without a blink of an eye! She didn’t even have to try! I don’t even think she has done scullery work. I wonder what Lily thinks of her… I’ll ask her when she comes upstairs. You see, I went to bed early, as I wanted to vent my fury in this little journal.
“I think she’s funny,” remarked Lily as she bundled every cover she could find onto the bed. Even though it is March, the grass is always still heavy with dew in the mornings, and all my fingers are red from cold sores. I wish the warm weather would hurry up!
“You think she’s funny?” I questioned.
“She makes me laugh. We need a bit of laughter in the kitchen now that we’re starting the spring clean so the house will be ready for when His Lordship returns.” Lily sighed as she clambered into bed. “I don’t want the new season to start again – it gets so stuffy in the kitchen in the summer months. In the winter at least we’re warm near the oven!”
I nodded in response – fair enough. Grudgingly I realised Nancy did bring some kind of entertainment, although how she can get away with a few curls framing her dimpled face I cannot understand, when Mrs Seddons scolds me every time she sees even one hair out of place.
Nancy has a head of blonde curls which seem to float in a dreamy way about her face, like some kind of angelic halo. She has the widest and clearest and bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. As I peered in the looking-glass this afternoon my mousy locks and dark, heavy features looked common and dull in comparison. My nails are yellow from washing up and I’ve noticed the skin under my eyes is usually grey from lack of sleep.
Well, never mind. I can’t compete with her carelessness or playfulness, but I do find it infuriating that she got a new kitchen maid job and I’m still stuck in the scullery. When I told that to James in a recent letter, all he said was that I need to keep working hard. Aparently Apparently he’s told Charlotte lots about me which is good of him – I am looking forward to meeting James’s sweetheart.
Goodnight for now – I’ll need sleep for tomorrow to keep my wits about me in the kitchen. Nancy seems to be able to annoy Cook yet deftly avoids her sharp words. How? I think she needs to teach me a few tricks so I can manage through the spring.
I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in all my life. It was definitely worth missing my half-day off. By the time I stopped laughing my stomach ached and I felt exhausted!
When Nancy came up with the idea it was the last day of March. Lily and I were just getting to sleep and we heard the creak of footsteps nearing our bedroom. Nancy poked her head around the door and giggled.
“I’ve got a smashing idea,” she whispered to us. “It’s the first of April tomorrow and you know what that means, don’t you?”
I bit my tongue sharply, wanting to remind her that if she was caught creeping about then Mrs Seddons would be onto us all like a vulture.
“It’s April Fool’s Day!” Lily murmured excitedly, crossing her arms tightly across the covers, eyes shining in the dusky light of the attic bedroom.
Nancy beamed, dimples deep in her cheeks, and nodded approvingly as if we were her wards. “Exactly. And I know precisely what fool we’re going to play…”
The following morning I was giddy with anticipation and also nervousness. Would we get in serious trouble for this? Probably. The senior servants do not like to be made fun of, and I was reminded of how strict and stern the butler is here at Ickworth.
“Are you looking forward to it, Arianna?” Nancy asked when she leant over to give me a dish to wash up.
“Yes,” I admitted. “I can’t wait to see his face.”
“Me too. Of course, we’ll get into trouble. We always do. I played a similar joke at the kitchen where I worked previously and-”
“You’ve worked in kitchens before?” I was so surprised, I interrupted her.
She laughed at my face and continued preparing breakfast. “Of course – I worked there for two years as a scullery-maid before seeing this position at Ickworth.”
I paused for a moment. “But you’re only fifteen.”
“Yes, I started at thirteen. You see, my mother is an invalid and so we needed money for food and medicine. She cannot work.”
“Your father?” Nancy grimaced and shook her head, curls bobbing. “He’s rarely at home and if he is, he’s drunk.”
“I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed, as I barely knew what to say. As it happens, I couldn’t have said much more as a footman knocked on the kitchen door and Nancy was away, sidling up and flirting outrageously.
It was about an hour later when we servants sat down for breakfast. Nancy and I kept catching each other’s eyes and giggling, the seriousness of our earlier conversation forgotten.
As a scullery maid, I sit down with John the hall-boy at the bottom of the table and so Mr Fox seems miles away at the top. But that moment when he lifted his spoon to crack open his boiled egg… I bit my tongue and made a funny gurgling sound. I was laughing already. Mr Fox didn’t find a firm, warm egg inside the shell. He found a pool of runny and revolting egg white! The uncooked egg had not only splattered all over his plate and the table, but even left a dribbling mess all over his smooth, starchy coat. He turned red in the face with indignation and reminded me of a ripe radish plucked from the garden. I covered my face with my napkin and gave in to laughter – I chortled just as much as Nancy, and didn’t even stop when Cook shrieked at us.
“Nancy! Arianna!” She shouted so loud I feared Lord Bristol would have heard her upstairs. “Why on Earth is poor Mr Fox’s egg not cooked? Did you just fling it in the cup without boiling it in the saucepan? Girls, return to the kitchen immediately!”
Nancy’s eyes turned wide in mock horror. Muttering something about oversleeping and footmen, she pulled some endearing ringlets down about her cheeks and looked up at the senior servants. But even that didn’t melt Cook, and we escaped from the servant’s hall with no half-day off for this week. And yet as Nancy, Lily and I fell into the kitchen in hysterics over the look of sheer outrage on Mr Fox’s face, I knew it was worth it.
Goodnight, and Happy April!
Finally, I bought a summer hat.
The washed out jam jar labelled ‘hat fund’ has been in my bedroom ever since August last year. You see, I wanted a summer hat then but firstly didn’t have enough money to spare, and also thought that by next spring there would probably be a new fashion anyway. So I was patient and waited until now to buy a gorgeous new straw boater.
As it turned out, Nancy also had a half-day off as well. I wasn’t too pleased about it at first, but it worked out very well. It was a warm afternoon, the type that makes you think summer is just around the corner, and the sun was a bright orange orb, high in the sky.
We jumped on the bus and leapt off again at Bury, and it was just when I was feeling independent and free that I realised I had no idea where to get a summer hat! I knew each and every store in Bakewell but didn’t know the shops here in Suffolk well at all.
“Nancy,” I began quietly, then explained the tricky situation and ended with, “So do you have any idea where I could buy a summer hat on my wages?”
She considered it seriously and we both paused in the middle of the street.
“I have it!” Clasping my hand and pulling me along, Nancy began to gabble excitedly. “Oh, Arianna, I have just the store. It might cost you a penny or two, but nothing that is unrealistic. After all, you have been saving for this, haven’t you? Goodness, I can’t wait to see you in some delightful creation of a hat. I have half a mind to cancel my date this afternoon just so I can make sure you pick the right one.”
I giggled a bit at this. Soon enough Nancy was leading me through a door that jingled at our arrival and she began showing me around the store.
“Now, if I remember, the hats are just over here…” She made a grand flourish and swept her hand in front of all the summer hats.
There were so many I couldn’t help but gape – I’d be here until midnight choosing! Hats with short brims and hats with wide brims; hats with blue or pink or yellow ribbons; hats with a flower or two woven into the trim and hats with garlands of roses. They looked like they should be worn by fairies, and not a girl who spends most of her day in front of a sink.
The next few minutes were filled with, “How about this one?” and “Arianna, this one would look wonderful on you!” or “You just have to buy this one.”
I couldn’t decide – I was caught between a long brim with curling yellow ribbons and a shorter brim with a smart navy coloured trim. Nancy was in favour of the navy one, but I wasn’t so sure. In the end it was a young shop assistant who made the decision. He couldn’t have been much older than John, the hall boy at Ickworth, but he was rather tall and gangly.
“May I be of assistance, ladies?”
I was about to refuse but Nancy jumped in and replied bluntly. “Yes. If you wouldn’t mind, which hat do you think Arianna suits most?”
He regarded me earnestly and I flushed under the inspection. At long last he made a decision and said simply, “The navy. It suits Miss Arianna’s lovely shining hair very well, if I might say so.”
Nancy nudged me and winked cheekily. I couldn’t help but blush. Nevertheless, the nice shop assistant made my decision and I bought the navy one after all.
When we had left the store and were strolling along the sunny streets, Nancy began to tease me about my ‘lovely shining hair’.
On the subject of beaux, I suddenly remembered Nancy had a date this afternoon. “Don’t you have to be somewhere with a young man?”
She shrugged in reply. “I preferred shopping for hats with you.”
I paused in the middle of the pavement. “So you stood him up?”
“Yes, I suppose so. But not because of selfishness but because of friendship.” She linked her arm through mine. “It’s nice spending time with you – you’re good company.”
I was flattered by that. She hadn’t been on a date because of me! After that, we spent the afternoon in the Abbey Gardens with an ice cream each before catching the bus back to Ickworth. I had a glorious time and now also have a summer hat. Of course, my jam jar is empty now. I’ve crossed out ‘hat fund’ but am unsure what to re-label it. What should I save up for next?
I’ve been here for just over a year now. I must say, it seems much longer as I have settled in better than I ever expected I would. Those first couple of months of aching limbs and sore fingers seemed to drag on forever, but now I can proudly say that Ickworth is definitely my home.
I’ve enjoyed the work in the kitchen today – the sun makes me happy although Cook doesn’t like working in a hot and stuffy kitchen.
Today we made lots of lovely summer treats for the family. Of course, Jim was in and out of the kitchen every other minute hoping for a spoonful of cream or an off-cut from the pastry tart. Cook shooed him away each time, clucking in disapproval like a hen might cluck if somebody touched her eggs, but I just giggled.
What a difference this warm weather makes to everything! Nancy says I sound quite middle-aged when I say that, but it is true. Now it’s June the sun is strong and sets so very late in the evening. Last night the sky was filled with blood red streaks of a sunset.
To make best use of the gorgeous weather John, the hall-boy, and I went for a little stroll around the park. We didn’t walk through the Italianate gardens of course – I wonder what Lord Bristol would have said if he’d seen his scullery-maid and hall-boy frolicking in his gardens?! John and I didn’t chat much; we listened to the birdsong and he seemed to recognise most of the tweets. He really does love the outdoors and told me he’d been walking around the meadows and woods before and admired the flowers.
“It’s not as girlish as it sounds,” he informed me quite importantly. “I like the flowers at this time of year. I still prefer watching the birds though. Look, Arianna, there goes a magpie.”
I really cannot remember all the different birds he showed me – their names are far too complicated. We spent a pleasant hour wandering the estate. It’s not like when the housemaids and footmen go out and flirt ‘abominably’ (that’s Miss Edgeley’s word). No, it was more companionable than that, as though he was a brother of mine.
Speaking of brothers, James and I managed to meet up on my half-day off. I caught the bus to the village where he works and we bought ice creams from the dairy there. Dear old James. He’s still head-over-heals for Charlotte. We’ve both settled in remarkably well I think – we’re so very much happier than we were in Bakewell.
John and Nancy are calling me so I’d better sign off for now.
Imagine my surprise when Laurie perched on the bench next to me in the servants’ hall yesterday and flung a letter on the table.
“For you, Arianna.”
Curiously I picked up the paper and studied the handwriting. It was Mama’s. We used to correspond regularly when I first came to Ickworth. And I had sent her and Mr Fairfax a Christmas card. But we haven’t written at all since then. Does she miss me? Do I miss her? My family is at Ickworth now and I expect she knows that.
I was pretty alarmed at the sight of it I must say. What kind of news could it bring? I slit open the seal and swiftly scanned the letter – it was very short. My heart gave one heavy thud and I couldn’t help a loud gasp. There was no bad news. No, not bad news but shocking news. I had no idea. Of course it makes sense though – mama had always wanted a large family. And two children who now live in Suffolk can’t possibly be enough for her.
The rather blunt letter is pasted below so I do not lose it. I wonder what James thinks about it.
July 10th, Bakewell, Derbyshire
I hope you’re well.
I write to you with exciting news – I dearly hope you will congratulate Mr Fairfax and I. We are expecting a baby, Arianna. Is that not delightful? I hope you and your brother will come to visit us once it is born. It is expected in September.
I know little about these kind of events. My time in domestic service might prepare me for cooking for a family but it doesn’t prepare me for having one. But I do know babies take longer than two months to grow and then be born. Nancy, I was sure, would know.
“Eight months. If it’s expected in September…” she counted on her starch covered fingers – she had been peeling hundreds and hundreds of potatoes. “Then the baby would have been conceived in January, I think.”
And mama hadn’t told me all that time. I suppose that is the reason she hadn’t written to me for a while. She and Mr Fairfax are getting ready for a family in their Bakewell cottage.
I did my best to put it from my mind. Luckily Cook kept us all so busy today in the sweltering kitchens. We made delectable jellies and savoury tarts as well as fresh elderflower cordial. Now I have been at Ickworth for so many months, Cook lets me watch her make sauces for the family’s main meal. At least if I do go to Bakewell and visit Mama, I’ll be able to show off all my cooking talent. And meet my new brother or sister.
Ickworth is truly gorgeous in summer-time.
At every twist in the path flowers bloom in pink, yellow and blue. When Nancy and I walked a little this evening I noticed how a rose, coloured like a baby’s flushed cheeks, leant against the sandy brown of bricks. Really, it is an artist’s paradise.
“Funny, isn’t it,” Nancy began, twirling a lock of shiny hair around her finger. “Funny how the basement can be so stuffy and how we can complain, yet outside it is so peaceful and so pretty.”
We could just see the towering dome of the Rotunda, half in shadow, rising up above the shrubs and trees.
I write to you from my bed. It has not yet been two full days since dearest little Frederick was born, and for one of the first times he is sleeping.
His papa is quite awed, Freddie is his first child remember, and neither of us could be happier. In the recent weeks he has been turning our cottage’s attic into a nursery of sorts and I have been recalling the toys you and James used to play with when you were new-born babes.
Freddie was pronounced a ‘healthy lad’ by the doctor and is curled up, all red-faced and scrunched, but mercifully quiet. I am afraid this will be the last time I can write to you for a short while as Freddie will take up all our thoughts and attentions. He is such a dear thing.
When will you come to visit us, Arianna, to see your half-brother? Perhaps in a few months when Mr Fairfax and I have become more used to having a baby in our cottage. And James too, I miss my eldest son.
I shall say goodbye for now – I imagine Freddie will wake soon enough
Gracious, when I picked up this letter this morning I didn’t know it would contain such news. Of course, I have expected it all through September but had heard nothing and so assumed that my mother would write a few weeks after her baby was born.
My half-brother, Frederick. James, Arianna and Freddie. I must say those names fit together nicely, but it is terribly odd thinking mama has a third child now. It was always just James and I. I wonder if he has heard too, perhaps I will visit him this Sunday.
Earlier, when I first read the letter, I spoke to Rose, one of the housemaids. Aparently she has several younger siblings at home and her home is just a walk away. I’m not sure whether I like that idea or not as being so far away from Derbyshire has meant I have been able to distance myself from mama’s new husband and family.
I can hear the trolley’s wheels clattering on the uneven stone flags. Dinner is on its way! I helped prepare some pasties for the servant’s supper and washed the blackberries for the pie Mrs Finkle managed to prepare with some of the leftover pastry.
Blackberries are such a wonderful autumnal taste, don’t you think? The blackberry crop in Suffolk is much better than Derbyshire’s too.
Here comes the trolley around the corner. I’m famished.