Although the 'Swallowcliffe Hall' stories are imaginary, I wanted to be absolutely sure that the historical background would be accurate. Before I began to write, I read as many books as I could find about Victorian servants and the houses in which they worked – in particular, large country house estates – and I also used the Internet for research. In fact, I found some of the books and pamphlets that were written for servants at the time so interesting that I decided to put snippets from them at the front of each chapter. The photograph on the left shows Carrie Palmer, a young still-room maid who was working at Brodsworth Hall, In Yorkshire, and is reproduced with thanks to English Heritage and the Edwards family.

'What can you do?' I sometimes ask a girl who applies to me for a first place. You and I might answer, though she remains awkwardly silent. She could be sure, for instance, to break nearly every cup and saucer you had in the house when washing up; she would light the fire, so as to let it die out again the next moment; she could do everything in the way of making a bed except tucking in the bedclothes; she could scorch your linen, and make havoc with your husband's shirt buttons. Well, I can only repeat, 'Take her and teach her.' She may turn out to be a rough diamond after all.

From Our Responsibilities and Difficulties as Mistresses of Young Servants, Lady Baker, 1886

Here are a few of the facts I discovered:

In 1891, the Census showed that over 100,00 girls aged between ten and fifteen were in service. (That figure was to have dropped sharply by the early 1900s, because the school leaving age was raised to twelve in 1899.)

An under housemaid like Polly in a large house might expect to be paid about fifteen pounds a year in 1890, which worked out at about one pound five shillings a month (£1.25p). A scullery maid in a less wealthy home might receive as little as ten shillings a month (50p), roughly the cost of dinner in a good hotel at that time.

Many of these young servants would have worked sixteen or seventeen hours a day: up at five or six in the morning to light kitchen ranges, lay fires and clean the house before the family woke, and not able to go to bed until late into the evening.

The photograph above is a rare unposed shot of maids at work in the kitchens of Brodsworth Hall, 1909-10. Servants' daily routine was considered hardly worth photographing, as a rule (English Heritage/Jeanne Brewin).

Most employers thought that servants had to be kept in their place. They did not want them to be educated in case this tempted them to look for a life beyond their narrow household duties, so such luxuries as candles for reading were forbidden. Their quarters were usually sparsely furnished and they had very little free time in which to enjoy them.

The worst thing a servant could do was put on 'airs and graces' or attempt to rise above his or her station. Some mistresses did not like their maids to wear their own hats to church, in case they were mistaken for members of the family.

Mistress (waylaying maid-of-all-work, who will be so dressy): 'Martha, I'm surprised at you! Now, what would people say if I went out on a Sunday afternoon in a pink blouse and white feathers?'
From Punch magazine, 1898

 Not all employers were heartless, of course. Some were genuinely interested in the welfare of their servants and tried to make their lives comfortable and fulfilling. When a maid at Erddig, a large country house in Wales, became ill with scarlet fever, the mistress of the house nursed the girl herself. And Erddig, I read, was where the maids used to spend summer evenings chatting on the roof – an idea I borrowed for Polly's Story.

I always give the servants the same tea I drink myself. People may exclaim at the extravagance of this plan, but I do not look on it as the least extravagant, for I do not believe in the short-sighted economy of giving your servants a mixture you would not drink yourself.

From Our Servants – Their duties to us and ours to them, Mrs Eliot James, 1882


Charming lady (showing her house to benevolent old gentleman): 'That's where the housemaid sleeps.'
Benevolent old gentleman: 'Dear me, you don't say so! Isn't it very damp? I see the water glistening on the walls.'
Charming lady: 'Oh, it's not too damp for a servant!'

From Punch magazine, 1891