- - Monday, March 10, 2014

DIAMONDS AT DINNER: MY LIFE AS A LADY’S MAID IN A 1930S STATELY HOME
By Hilda Newman
John Blake/Trafalgar Square, $14.95, 241 pages, illustrated

Few people in 21st-century America have experienced the attentions of a lady’s maid, but those of us who have just finished watching the latest season of the redoubtable “Downton Abbey” have seen something of what these include and what it is like to be her. Or have we really?

No matter how well researched and grounded in sociohistorical fact a drama is, is it a true portrait? This briskly told, evocative and engaging memoir by a young woman transported from her humble home in a cottage to a neo-Palladian pile as personal maid to the countess of Coventry shows it to be remarkably accurate.

Nineteen-year old Hilda Mulley came to Croome Court in Worcestershire in 1935, a dozen years after the most recent “Downton” episode, but customs in those interwar years seem to have changed very little. There was still a servants ball.

Hilda was always addressed as Mulley and her butler, Mr. Latter, is a carbon copy of Mr. Carson on “Downton,” formidable with a starchy manner and great authority, but not as hard as he seems. The cook is Mrs. Sapsford, although she has never been married, and so on.

However, there are some surprising differences. Although Croome is similar in size as an establishment to Downton, Mrs. Sapsford is both cook and housekeeper. Things below stairs are even more hierarchical.

Mulley is classified as a “head servant” along with the butler, cook and children’s governess, and they eat separately in the steward’s room rather than with the lower orders in the servants hall. The size of her bedroom is overwhelming: “the room in front of me was absolutely vast — I thought you could have plonked the whole of our house into this one room and still have had space left over. The ceiling was at least 15 feet above my head and there was the grandest fireplace I’d ever set eyes on.”

She is still more astonished to be woken the next morning by a maid bringing her a cup of tea and telling her that her bath was ready, leading her “into a room almost as big as my bedroom. In it was a large enamelled bath, brimming with hot, steaming water. It was a very long way from the Mulley household’s Friday ritual of a quick dip in the old tin tub in front of the fire.”

Her wages of five shillings per week (the equivalent of a dollar then) weren’t much — although she admits that they were five times what she earned as a seamstress back home — but with board and lodging like this, she reckoned she wasn’t so badly off, even if “she didn’t feel so much like a fish out of water as one who has been filleted, dressed and served up under one of the big silver platters Mr. Latter kept safely under lock and key.”

Goethe famously observed that no man was a hero to his valet, and certainly Mulley’s countess comes across as imperious and flawed. There is none of the cozy intimacy between mistresses and servants we see on screen: “You will address me as ‘Milady,’ Mulley. Not ‘Lady Coventry’ or ‘Your Ladyship’ — always ‘Milady.’ Do you understand?”

Orders are expected to be obeyed at once and executed flawlessly. Duties include looking after clothes and hair — she is sent for training in hairdressing — and being (legally) responsible for thousands of pounds worth of jewelry kept in a safe and more brought for special occasions from a bank vault.

She has to lay out in order a bewildering succession of garments to be worn, but is shocked that “it was far from unknown for Milady to wear the same pair of dirty [underpants] several days in a row.” The daughters of the house are even less pleasant miladies.

When war breaks out, patriotism is the order of the day. The alcoholic earl, who finds even hunting too much exertion, joins the army and dies at Dunkirk. As for the countess, she says, “‘I shall of course join the ATS [the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army during World War II]. I would like you to volunteer also, Mulley. If we join together, you can be assigned as my batman [a soldier assigned to an officer as a servant], and I shall not have to do without your services.’”

Although Mulley dutifully does as she is told, the wartime army has other plans. So the countess of Coventry, county commandant for Worcester, has to do without the services of Private Hilda Mulley, whose very different war is part of the coda to this fascinating tale of a true life below stairs.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.