We are all familiar with Mrs. Reynolds of Pride and Prejudice. She is the friendly housekeeper who leads Elizabeth Bennet and the Gardiners on their tour of Pemberley. In the process, she espoused the wonderful attributes of her master and provided further evidence that Wickham is not to be trusted, immediately endearing herself to reader and JAFF writer alike.
In JAFF, she is often the perfect housekeeper, adoptive mother to Georgiana and Fitzwilliam, and a force within Pemberley; but what were this character’s duties as housekeeper and would she really be so close to the family?
In a large house such as Pemberley, the housekeeper supervised the female staff with the exception of the lady’s maid, the cook, and the nurse, who took their direction directly from their mistress. She also hired and fired servants as the necessity or circumstance arose.
The household accounts were also a part of her domain, and she was responsible for the stores, the china closet, and the linen cupboard. The household linen had to remain in good repair. The house had to be ready for the master and mistress to be in residence at all times since the housekeeper remained at the estate rather than travelling with her employers. She ordered and replaced items needed for the household in general and to the food stores under the supervision of her mistress when the lady was at the home.
We often read of Elizabeth Bennet in the stillroom at Longbourn, but in a large house, that was the housekeeper’s domain. She distilled essences, prepared cosmetics, and mixed medicines for those of the household as well as provided necessary items and baby linens to the poor families in the neighborhood.
We often hear of Mrs. Reynolds having an office. While she might, tours of National Trust homes in England show us a more comfortable and fairly large sitting room attached to the housekeeper’s private chambers. Within the house, these rooms were often located where she could oversee the comings and goings below the stairs, meet with the mistress of the house, and conduct other business.
It was also not unusual for the housekeeper in a large house to have a substantial income on the side from giving tours of the home as Mrs. Reynolds did at Pemberley. Visitors viewing the estate often gave generous tips for the tour, which were pocketed by the housekeeper or the butler, depending upon who escorted them through the home. The second hand tea from the house also came to be in the possession of the housekeeper. The servants could partake of the tea, but according to a National Trust guide, the housekeeper sometimes sold this commodity for extra income.
Obviously, a housekeeper’s personal life depended much upon the situation. Research shows that housekeepers were generally thought of as a higher social class than other servants—possibly due to the fact that some women who filled this position were impoverished relatives, even widowed aunts or unmarried “spinster” cousins of the master and mistress. Thus, those boundaries that existed between the servant class and the family were not as distinct as those that existed with the lower servants.
Marriage, even amongst servants, served to elevate a woman’s status, so regardless of whether the housekeeper was married or whether she was a spinster, she was typically given the title of “Mrs.” This was done to illustrate respect for the position she held within the household.
The housekeeper of a grand house would not have risen to her place without being quite formidable in regards to her abilities—especially since as authors we have Darcy speak so highly of his beloved Mrs. Reynolds. Would you not agree?
Craig, Sheryl. Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine. Issue 22. pp 17-18.
Horn, Pamela. Flunkeys and Scullions, Life Below Stairs in Georgian England. Sutton Publishing. 2004. pp. 139-140, 201, 205.
Laudermilk, Sharon & Hamlin, Teresa L. The Regency Companion. Garland Publishing. 1989. pp. 159-160, 184.
Ross, Josephine. Jane Austen, A Companion. Rutgers University Press. 2002. Pg. 191.
White, John S. Jane Austen’s Regency Magazine. Issue 12. Page 23.