Catching up, 6/21/17

June 21, 2017

After three separate failed attempts at writing a review of The Owls of St. Ursula’s, I looked at my list of books read and decided I had enough for a catch-up post, even though I feel like all I’ve done lately is reread the Hildegarde-Margaret books.

The Owls of St. Ursula’s – Jane Brewster Reid

It took me a couple of months to finish this, but that shouldn’t reflect badly on the book. It’s a very, very nice school story, featuring a small boarding school with lots of quirks, and an appealing group of friends–believable as a single unit and as a set of individual friendships.

For the Comfort of the Family – Emilie Baker Loring

I went looking for a romance by Loring and instead ended up at this charming book of essays about housekeeping, by a champion of such modern conveniences as the fireless cooker and canned soup.

Half-A-Dozen Housekeepers – Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin

The housekeeping theme continues, with six girls staying in an empty house during a school vacation, and doing a realistically middling job of taking care of themselves. It’s like one long sleepover, and I was convinced that the girls were having fun, but wasn’t sure I was.

A Daily Rate – Grace Livingston Hill

More housekeeping, almost outweighed by religion. The best and the worst of Hill combined, as she describes the making-over of a boarding house, but is obviously more interested in the spiritual well-being of its inhabitants. But no, that’s not fair: it’s mostly without the condescension that makes the religious bits in Hill’s later stuff unbearable.

Snow-White – Laura E. Richards

A small girl runs away and finds a hunchback living in an adorable cottage in the woods. He consents to be part of her fairy tale. Ends just when I thought it was going to get interesting.


  1. That is the perfect description of Half a Dozen Housekeepers. I could not pin down why I did not find it more interesting/fun. And yes, I entirely agree that Snow-white ends just when one wants to know what’s going to happen, although I did enjoy (and find interesting) a number of bits before then as well.

    For the Comfort of the Family did a decent job at suggesting that one could do fine without a servant if one had an obliging husband and multiple sons who were on summer vacation and were willing to take on various chores, plus no small children (plus abundant access to all the modern conveniences of that time, plus paper towels and paper plates and cups and a sheet of paper covering your kitchen work space). This seemed like a rare use case, though, as presumably one’s spouse would not be on vacation all the time, and there are things like illness. (And how many teenage boys would wipe the dog’s paws off at the door when the weather is bad? Apparently hers! But exactly how rare would that be?) Charming, though, and I do think it made a good case for seeing if one’s circumstances might work with Being Servantless (except for the neighbor who comes through and cleans and fills the lamps and such).

    The menus were also quite a few degrees less frenetic than Ten Dollars Enough, which I appreciated (although still not exactly to my taste, for the most part); I don’t know how much of that is the later time period and how much of that is class or specific geography, though.

    I read it right next to Experience, by Catherine Cotton (written 8 years later), and tallied up the number of resident servants mentioned in the book – quite an entertaining contrast! (also, *why* did she go and volunteer at the hospital when she could have probably sent someone competent from her home and tried to take on that person’s home duties instead?)

    And I’m excited about The Owls of St. Ursula’s – I’m pretty sure I haven’t read that before, and it sounds good to me!

    (also, in the Hildegarde books, did it strike you that in the first two books or so, they killed off quite a lot of parents/guardians for convenience [so that characters more central to the plot could adopt them, basically] with no ill-effects on the children involved? This struck me on my last read-through as an oddity perhaps similar to Disney’s orphan frequency, but maybe it’s just me?)

    • Ugh, WordPress just deleted my almost-complete reply, so I’ll try to reproduce it.

      The Comfort of the Family really is coming from a place of privilege, which seems weird considering the premise is about avoiding having to have a servant. But it’s like, sure, you can do without a servant…if you have the money to buy all this stuff and no one in your family has to work.

      I think the 20 years or so between Ten Dollars Enough and For the Comfort of the Family explain most of the reduction in general meal elaborateness, but also Ten Dollars Enough is about teaching progressively more complicated skills.

      The differences between this and Experience are largely a class/geography thing, I think, but my memories of that book are pretty hazy.

      Re: the Hildegarde books, yes. Rose and Bubble’s mom, and Benny’s mom. The latter in particular was crazy, like “oh, you want to keep him? well, that’s fine, his mother died recently and we forgot to mention it.” The other parental deaths–Mr. Grahame, Hugh’s parents–seemed reasonable in context.

      • Sorry about the WordPress glitch – that is not awesome. Thank you for reproducing your work, though!

        Yeah, a reasonably well-off family full of people who don’t have to work but who are willing to do manual labor is an unusual thing. They’ve got enough financial resources to, in a way, replace the servant with conveniences – but I think there are at least some plausible non-economic arguments in favor of that swap. (I know I would do practically anything rather than have a servant, because augh, the social/power dynamics are not something I would want to try to navigate – and then you get into trying to find someone competent and non-fraudulent and not-incredibly-annoying to hire to begin with…)

        The main rhetorical point being made in For the Comfort of the Family is, I think, “these things can make your life simple enough that you can perhaps do without a servant” (and “life without a servant is appealing for these privacy/control reasons”) – with side advantages to people who are already doing without and need all the help they can get. The main rhetorical point in Ten Dollars Enough is closer to “Young married couples: don’t board out; if you run a tight ship and work strategically, you can have your own home and still provide just as fancy of food as your husband has been accustomed to, on a small budget.” – in one case, the theoretical payoff is total overall quality of life, and in the other, the payoff is strongly focused on the table quality (because, hey, it is mostly a cookbook after all!) and the husband’s satisfaction.

        In The Indifference of Juliet (I happened to finish reading it yesterday, and it feels relevant?), which is not an instruction manual but which also emphasizes 1. living in one’s own charming home, 2. doing things yourself, and 3. budget tradeoffs (or workarounds), there are admissions of various necessities (or desirable traits) for mostly-servantless housekeeping success on a budget, but it’s also pretty optimistic (for instance, the idea that cold baths and some outdoor exercise are sufficient to sustain ideal health in women no matter the stress or workload… uh, maybe not for everyone.).

        A.D.T. Whitney’s books seem to idealize a reduction in the numbers of servants (or, in families where it’s possible, eliminating servants), a greater integration of the servants into the family, and the concept of making various housekeeping tasks less grubby and messy so that they don’t have to be hidden away and don’t cause misery. But… still pretty optimistic.

        All told, I’m very grateful for 1. an increase in simplicity of food (all those courses and garnishes!) and dress (all that pressing! and not being able to put on evening dress without assistance!), 2. modern plumbing, 3. washing machines, 4. refrigeration and freezing capabilities, and 5. the reduction/elimination of the system of formal calling. Whew.

        (also, yes, not all the parent/guardian deaths are unreasonable. Just, once I noticed, there seemed to be a kind of excessive number, and some of them really are unreasonable…)

  2. Aw, I’m bummed about Snow-White. That’s straight up my alley.

    I didn’t even know Loring wrote nonfiction! IIRC there is one Emilie Loring novel on Gutenberg but it is AWFULLLL.

    • Snow-White isn’t bad at all, I just thought I was finally going to see some adults interacting and then it was over.

      It seems like Loring had a column in a magazine (under the name Josephine Story) and her two non-fiction books are her collected columns.

  3. I adore you and your taste in books. Housekeeping and dometicity is my jam!! Bookmarked this post right away.

    • Haha, thanks! My working theory is that housekeeping books are so good because you get to see women doing practical stuff. (And I am always open to recommendations.)

  4. I think time spent re-reading the Hildegarde-Margaret books seems like the most delightful way to spend one’s time! I may have to do likewise. The Owls of St. Ursula’s also sounds like something I need to find.

    • Every time I come back to the Hildegarde-Margaret books I appreciate them more. (I tend to go Margaret-Hildegarde, though, because Hilda Grahame is my fave.)

      The Owls of St. Ursula’s is definitely worth a try. There’s also one more St. Ursula’s book that I haven’t read yet.

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