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Friday, June 1, 2012

The Mistress of Skeldale House: Part 1

Mrs. Hall's busy kitchen

Those of us who have read James Herriot’s books, or watched the TV series “All Creatures Great and Small,” know that Mrs. Hall, the housekeeper and cook in Skeldale House, set a nice table.  Every meal offered large portions of good food that enabled Sigfried, James, and Tristan to keep up their strength as they left Skeldale House at all hours of the day or night to work on the farm animals. 

As a writer, I’m fascinated by how people perform their daily tasks.  When writing a Fantasy or Science Fiction novel, one must determine not only what people eat, but also what type of food is available, where it comes from, how it is grown, harvested, and processed, and how it is prepared once someone in the household buys it.  Of course, when writing a Historical novel, the demands increase a thousand-fold.  Readers can be sticklers for details.  For example, they may write in to let the author know that a particular weave of fabric, or a particular color of cloth, wasn’t available at the time and in the region in which the novel is set.

Mrs. Hall's kitchen table

Alf Wight, who wrote under the pseudonym of James Herriot, arrived at Skeldale House in the 1930s.  There he joined Sigfried and Tristan Farnon in running their veterinarian practice.  But what do I know of life in England nearly eighty years ago?  It seems like an extraordinary time in many ways.  It exists on the cusp of change, or rather, it exists between two distinct periods, one in which running a household was an enormous job, and the present, with all our labor-saving modern conveniences.

In Jane Austen’s era, a host of servants would have been necessary to run a household with a modicum of comfort.  She displays the difference between a family that has money, and one that doesn’t, in Mansfield Park.  In the novel, Fanny, who is raised in comfort by her rich aunt and uncle, goes to visit her parents for a few months.  She is shocked by how stressed and overworked her mother is by the constant demands of running a household single-handedly.  Yet even when she lives with her rich aunt and uncle, for years she is forced to economize by going without a fire in the fireplace of her cold sitting room.

A food scale for ingredients

The recent BBC miniseries “Downton Abbey” shows how many people were involved in running a mansion for the wealthy at the turn of the twentieth century.  Yet not just the rich employed servants.  Anyone who could afford to hire servants would have done so, due to the labor involved in cooking and cleaning.  The more money one had, the more servants one could employ.  This was not just for social status: the technology level back then might have improved somewhat from Jane Austen’s day, but still, it seems to me that English households in the Edwardian era operated at a very basic level.  

So the question remains: how did Mrs. Hall, a few decades later in the 1930s, run her household and care for the needs of her men?  I’ll attempt to answer that in tomorrow’s entry, The Mistress of Skeldale House: Part 2.

Thanks for reading,
Dragon Dave

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