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Tuesday, July 29

Mrs. Elton Sez: Governess Presents Suspicious Request

Dear Mrs. Elton,

Although we have never met, your reputation for dispensing advice to everyone and anyone regardless of their background or station has spread far and wide. I wonder if I may prevail upon you to aid me in helping a young girl named Jenny.

I am the governess at Houghton House. This letter is not about me, however, as I have known since I was orphaned at fifteen that this employment would be the most practical solution for a woman in my situation. As you know, governesses occupy a unique niche in a household: we are neither servant nor family. I am not complaining, for my employers are generous and often ask me to make up a fourth at bridge or other card game. I am a realist, and have come to terms with the knowledge that I will probably never marry or have children. This brings me to Jenny, who at fifteen reminds me of my orphaned self. As you know, scullery maids lead a harsh existence. Jenny is up at the crack of dawn drawing water, emptying chamber pots, and bringing coal up to the rooms. I suspect she is one of the last servants to go to bed, as she is at the beck and call of all the other house servants.

These past two years, Jenny has arisen a half hour early to come to my rooms. During our stolen moments together I have taught her the alphabet, how to sign her name, and the rudiments of becoming a lady's maid. I have allowed Jenny to practice dressing my hair and lay out my wardrobe, such as it is, and taught her all the duties that would be expected of her in this position.

Jenny is now considered too old to remain as scullery, and I overheard my mistress saying she would be moved to the laundry room. In this post Jenny would be expected to work with lye soaps and other strong solutions that cause her delicate skin to swell in huge red welts. Jenny is too delicate for such work and I fear for her health.

Would you be willing to help me find a position for Jenny as a lady's maid? I thank you most humbly ahead of time.

Your obedient servant,

Miss Eleanor Pritchett

Mrs. Elton's Reply

Dear Miss Pritchett,

It is quite a surprise, and not entirely a pleasant one, that my reputation for dispensing advice has spread so far and wide. Me, an advisor general! I do not pretend to any thing of the sort; indeed, no one can be more an advocate for minding my own business than I am. I would not for the world offer my opinion in a forward way, as that would be unsuited to the rectitude and propriety of my position as a vicar's wife; still, there is the matter of doing one's duty, and as the helpmeet and partner of my dear caro sposo Mr. Elton, I am often obliged to venture into the affairs of people in whom I would otherwise have no interest whatsoever. I hope I never shirk my duty, but that the repute of my talents in this line should have spread to the servants' hall, is certainly something remarkable, in fact, quite wonderful.

I must, however, confess that I have certain suspicions, that must be communicated without delay. You claim to be Miss Pritchett, the governess of Houghton House; but, my dear madam, every one knows that Houghton House is the merest ruin. Did not the Duke of Bedford strip the house and remove the roof, so recently as 1794, after his father was killed whilst out riding? The story was in all the newspapers at the time, and I remember very well when the Duke died in '02, reading that Houghton House was a ruin, quite a ruin. It is said to be utterly uninhabited, except perhaps by...ghosts. I only write what all the world knows.

The practicality and domestic concerns of your letter do not accord well with the fanciful world of ghosts, and your stated aim of procuring a position for a young scullery maid is not the stuff of horrid tales. You will acknowledge, however, that the name of Houghton House is not the very best reference for a young servant's character. As that is the case, I regret to state that, without farther testimonial, I cannot be of service in recommending your Jenny to a place. It is a pity, for I know several ladies on the watch for a lady's maid; but they would all demand more solid testimonials than you seem able to produce. One cannot employ a servant whose domicile is the merest fiction, as you can plainly comprehend.

Faithfully yours,

Mrs. Elton

Mrs. Elton Sez is written/channeled by Austen-esque author Diana Birchall. Please join her on Tuesdays and Fridays for her sage and sometimes sardonic voice, as she graciously condescends to advise on a variety of subjects.

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