May 1st, 1926. Dear Alec, Just when those who should be working are all downing tools for this wretched strike (and I still can’t believe it—I mean to say: riots, Alec—in Edinburgh of all places) guess who is setting her virgin shoulder to its very first wheel? I am dressed in serge and sensible footwear, sleeping in an iron bed and dining off pickled tongue at six o’clock each day. I am, in short, that nice young Mrs. Fleming’s new maid. But don’t worry, Alec dear: things haven’t got as bad as all that. It’s just that that nice young Mr Fleming is going to kill his wife. At least, she thinks so, and the more I hear about him from butler, cook and bootboy the more I’m inclined to agree. So I’m undercover, in disguise, bent upon foiling. And jolly hard work it is too – tomorrow is my half-day free if you’d care take me out for a restorative bun. (Every maid needs a nice young man to buy buns for her.) Yours, Dandy xx p.s. Ask for Miss Rossiter: below stairs I am she.
Fifth in a series, Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver And The Proper Treatment Of Bloodstains was a cornucopia of delicious historical detail about England in 1926. This is the first I’ve read of this series, though I doubt it will be the last. In its relatively lighthearted tone, it reminded me a bit of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series. The detective heroine, Dandy Gilver, is similarly upperclass, wealthy, and out for adventure, though more conventional than Phryne in several ways.
The novel is overflowing with details, but I confess my favorites all had to do with the labor of servants in the 1920s, something that isn’t usually present in fiction. Dandy’s undercover role for the case requires her to pretend to be a ladies’ maid instead of a lady. She is extremely out of her depth, and as she learns, so does the reader.
For instance, travel:
The train, at least the third-class part of it, was packed to the walls, every seat in every compartment taken, luggage racks bulging, corridors jammed tight and thick with pipe smoke. ..I was very glad to be leaving the train at its final destination, for I should have been at a loss on the question of how to extricate myself and my bag from a compartment and get my trunk out of the guard’s van during a short station stop. Did servants summon porters? Grant’s instructions had not covered this point but I hardly thought so, and even if a porter volunteered to help how was one to manage the tipping? As it was, I stood helplessly on the platform looking in at my trunk through the opened doors and wondering if I should try to shift it.
She learns all the niceties of laundry:
Crêpe de chine, satin, tussore – cold. Cashmere, chiffon, mohair – cool. Silk, faille, wool – warm. Lawn, cotton, linen – hot,’ I repeated to myself. ‘I’ve got it. And down again – wring, squeeze, press, drip. And up: sprinkle iron cool, sprinkle press cool, damp iron warm, wet press hot. It’s easy!’
…A door beside the window revealed a tiny room housing a small china sink with hot and cold taps, a very small mangle fitted to it at one end and a clothes airer on a pulley above it. Boxes of Sunlight soap and packets of Robin starch lined up along the windowsill told me that this was where Miss Rossiter would lovingly launder Mrs. Balfour’s most delicate garments. I sniffed at the packets, of course. Armed with Grant’s notes I would raid the kitchen for lemon and lavender; I knew the right way of things.
Even the more ordinary descriptive details are rendered with panache:
What I learned of Pip Balfour was that he took rather less interest in his own surroundings than in those of his wife. Lollie’s bedroom, no less carefully fitted up than her boudoir, had walls freshly covered in pale lavender silk, with white and lavender chintz at the windows and bed and sumptuous Aubusson carpets scattered about wherever her feet might be imagined to rest for more than a moment, but in here the walls were papered in stripes, the curtains were lined velvet and the floor was covered in a warm but far from beautiful Turkey rug. The furniture was mahogany in both rooms, it was true, but Lollie’s was Georgian mahogany with legs like toothpicks while Pip’s bedroom contained great hulking boulders of the blackest, most bulbous excesses the Victorian age can ever have mustered, from a very strong field.
Aside from the fact that I was already very interested in the time period, I think I would have enjoyed this novel’s historical detail, and the way those details illuminated the social issues of the period and made the plot more meaningful. I love it when I can learn something new!
Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.