“Housekeeping ain’t no joke.”
~ Louisa May Alcott
Housekeepers in literature seem to have a bad reputation. They are the keepers of the keys, the ones in charge of the house. Often they know secrets about the house’s past, its inhabitants and its rooms. They provide protagonists with a sense of foreboding, appearing suddenly, looming out of the darkness…
I recently bought a few beautiful hardback books and was thinking about some of my favourite classic stories; many of them take place in grand old houses and therefore have housekeepers. So I’ve decided to consider two of the most infamous housekeepers: Mrs Medlock and Mrs Danvers.
Mrs Danvers ~ Rebecca
Mrs Danvers was Rebecca’s maid as a child, coming with her to Manderley and eventually becoming housekeeper. When Maxim brings home the new Mrs DeWinter, there is immediate animosity between the two women. At times it seems that Mrs Danvers merely ignores her, belittling and scaring her as opportunity arises, but never actively seeking to do her harm.
She went on looking at me, watching my eyes. “Do you think she can see us, talking to one another now?” she said slowly. “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?”Rebecca ~ Daphne DuMaurier
However, this changes when the newlyweds throw a party and Mrs Danvers suggests that Mrs DeWinter dress up as the young woman in the portrait she has long admired. Before the guests arrive, the costume is revealed and we discover that Rebecca had worn a similar disguise. Everyone is horrified; Mrs Danvers triumphant.
As more secrets are revealed, it’s clear that Mrs Danvers did not know Rebecca as well as she thought. We assume that she guesses the truth about Rebecca’s death and this is what causes her to (allegedly) set the house on fire.
Although Mrs Danvers is manipulative and cruel, we have to remember that she is grieving for a woman she loved; she sees Max’s new bride as a betrayal of her mistress’s memory and I think that this adds to her callousness.
Mrs Medlock ~ The Secret Garden
Mrs Medlock is the housekeeper at Misselthwaite Manor where she runs the great house on behalf of Archibald Craven. She is also responsible for looking after Colin Craven. We see Mrs Medlock through the eyes of Mary Lennox: a spoilt, unloved child who has come to England from India where most of her time was spent in the company of her servants.
“She thought Mrs. Medlock the most disagreeable person she had ever seen, with her common, highly colored face and her common fine bonnet.”The Secret Garden ~ Frances Hodgson Burnett
Unused to rules, Mary has limited respect for any of the staff at Misselthwaite, because she sees them as nothing more than servants. That said, Mrs Medlock is unsympathetic towards Mary, because she has many other priorities.
In the book of The Secret Garden, one could argue that Medlock is simply doing her job; she is a very busy woman and doesn’t have time to fawn over a young girl who is unwanted. However, the 1993 film version portrays her as mean and cruel and Maggie Smith’s Medlock is how most of us picture her.
What we must remember is that Medlock had a lot of respect for the Craven family; she has known Colin all of his life and no doubt she wants what’s best for him. She is a housekeeper – not a nanny – so probably just wants to be able to do her job in peace!
After looking at both characters in more detail, it’s clear that they are not without fault. While neither really deserves our pity, we can understand their behaviour by the way they have been treated by their superiors.
However, Mrs Medlock is not really cruel and as the book develops, our perception of her changes. Medlock does not hate Mary, but is not used to children (particularly sour and unpleasant ones); she just wants her life to be simple, so that she can do her job to the best of her ability.
Mrs Danvers on the other hand is deliberately intimidating the second Mrs DeWinter, rejoicing in her discomfort and constantly reminding her that she will never be as good a wife, or as a beautiful a woman as Rebecca.
What do you think of our two antagonists? Is there another housekeeper that sticks out for you from literature?
Read our review of The Secret Garden in Concert.
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