Owhether known as cleaners, charladies, maids, janitors or maids, those who clean have recently been revamped. Originally considered comical or sinister, they have become emblems of resilience, keeping chaos and Covid at bay. Next week, Paul Gallico’s enchanting comedy Mrs Harris Goes to Paris opens as a movie with Leslie Manville in the lead. It will shine a light on a job that went from being a side character to being a hero.
Perhaps English literature’s first cleaner is Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, associating “sweeping the dust behind the door” with the blessing of a house. Yet clutter, whether domestic or political, has long been seen as female or unskilled work. For those who dislike the imposition of domestic order, cleaners can be sinister and even vengeful presences, notably depicted in Jean Genet’s play Les bonnes. But for those who only feel relief to have their dirt removed by someone else, the cleaner is a bringer of joy.
Having worked as a housekeeper myself in my 20s, I know that there is no other job that is as crucial, as underpaid, or as interesting to me as a novelist. A cleaner sees the bigger picture of employers, not just in terms of cleanliness, but because they are automatically assumed to be stupid or even subhuman. My own heroine in The Golden Rule is an impoverished and abused college graduate and single mother who gets caught up in a plot by a wealthy woman to murder each other’s husbands. She discovers a very different story after cleaning the house of her future victim.
1. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico
Novels about cleaners are usually variations of Cinderella. In 1958, Mrs Harris is working for “human pigs” in Belgravia and dreams of a Dior dress. When she wins the football hens, she goes to Paris to buy one. Being a big part of her time, she’s an innocent abroad, but the charm of Gallico’s portrayal of the valiant cockney fighting with the arrogant French is winning. Although Gallico is best known for novels such as The Snow Goose, Mrs. Harris has become one of the author’s most beloved comic creations; she reappears in three subsequent books, even becoming a Member of Parliament.
2. Eva Ibbotson’s Secret Countess
In this writer’s supreme romantic comedy debut novel for adults, his Russian aristocratic exile, Anna, gets a job as a “tweeny” in the idyllic but crumbling home of the Earl of Westerholme. While injured, he was tricked into marrying the beautiful, wealthy, and terribly eugenicist Muriel, but soon the Earl and his housekeeper fall in love. Her delightfully funny portrayal of class relations contains a core of white-hot rage against snobbery and anti-Semitism: Ibbotson herself was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.
3. Nita Prose’s Maid
Unlike the dark Netflix series of the same name, it’s a joy. Larky, orphan Molly is “the last person anyone invites to a party”. She loves her job as a housekeeper at a fancy New York hotel, but when she finds a guest’s body, she’s framed for his murder and must become a detective. Molly makes us feel her delight in what’s crisp, neatly ordered, and formally correct, but as a neurodivergent person in a dangerous city, she also has a terrible inability to spot dishonesty.
4. Damon Galgut’s Promise
A darker relationship is depicted in this 2021 Booker Prize-winning novel. My dying promises Salomé, the devoted black servant caring for her, that she will be given her own home and land in South Africa. Yet, decade after decade, the promise is ignored by Ma’s selfish and greedy descendants. Although largely invisible and unheard of, Salome represents the “invisible” black people whose rights were stolen during apartheid. Four decades later, when the promise is finally kept, it’s too little, too late.
5. Kathryn Stockett’s help
As a young white graduate in 1960s Missisippi, Skeeter is intrigued by the lives of her friends’ black maids. Her eyes are opened while investigating their conditions, and she gradually earns their trust by paying information to write a magazine column about how to clean and maintain a household – something she knows nothing about. Good-hearted and entertaining, the novel attempts to be unbiased in its portrayal of a world that, like that of The Promise, is steeped in racism.
6. My Cleaner by Maggie Gee
Gee’s novel satirizes the British version of racism and inequality in the liberal chatty classes. A working white mother, Vanessa exploited her Ugandan housekeeper. In London to do a degree for which she does not have sufficient funds, Mary has become very attached to Vanessa’s young son, Justin. When he breaks down at 21, Vanessa has to pick up Mary from Kampala. A delightful character with an almost anthropological eye, Mary is offered double the money to return, and the two women’s relationship must be renegotiated.
7. Clean by MicheKirsch
Both heartbreaking and hilarious, this memoir chronicles how, as an anxious college student with a growing addiction to Valium, the writer took on cleanup jobs in Boston to help make ends meet. It gave her a window into the life she was hoping for. Yet when she gets this in 1980s London, she’s the one who messed up her home and family with drug addiction. At 50, clean and once again a housekeeper, living alone in a studio apartment in Hackney, Michele finds herself ending her working life as she started it, “in a stupid job you do when you really can’t do anything. do something else”.
8. A manual for maids by Lucia Berlin
A collection of 43 short stories about women struggling with all sorts of jobs, from switchboard operators to nursing. The title story is one of the brightest in a brutal series of emotional x-rays as its anonymous observer rides the bus from job to job, noting how “women’s voices always rise two octaves when talking to housekeepers or cats”. Highly autobiographical, they are gritty, funny, and filled with detail that makes it an exceptional work of 1960s fiction.
9. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
In this searing classic of undercover reporting, the late journalist worked as a cleaner after US federal welfare reform in 1998 pushed four million women into minimum-wage jobs. “You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents are too high,” she says after observing that “no one, no matter how lowly, is really ‘no qualified'”. Her exposure of the dehumanizing effects of this has brought corporate or middle-class employers no shame, although she herself has said she would never employ a cleaner.
10. The Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau
Célestine works in a Norman castle. His life, both comic and heartbreaking, demystifies 19th century French anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, greed and injustice. Without job security, financially and sexually exploited by her employers, the picture this book paints of her life as a minimum-wage slave with no hope of improving her lot in life is timeless. “We don’t have time to be sick, we don’t have time to suffer…suffering is a master’s luxury,” she says. Mirbeau’s excoriating satire was adapted for film by Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel, and it’s still as fresh as when he wrote it.