Neighbors, Lovers, & Other Little Scandals: Upstairs/Downstairs for Today
Nanny, butler, maid, footman, valet, housekeeper, cook, chauffeur, gardener, au pair, aide... the titles may change over time, but the duties for those who toil away in the households of the rich and privileged remain much the same. And, though we might euphemistically lump them together under the more-palatable “domestic workers” (in our must-above-all-else-be-P.C. world), the truth is they’re still servants, whose jobs involve waiting on others positioned higher up the social ladder.
No one is apt to think there’s much equality between the two groups--particularly not the “haves” (those who have more of everything, whether money, status, or power) nor their household staffs (employed to do the menial work). The domestic hires have at their disposal one (potentially) very useful tool, however: knowledge, of all the little habits, eccentricities, and secrets of their employers (and something which the employers are probably mostly unawares they possess).
What might someone do with such knowledge... well, that’s the hundred-thousand-dollar question, isn’t it? Ruth Rendell--doyenne of the psychological thriller--gives her take on the matter, in The St. Zita Society.
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Life for the homeowners--and for those who wait upon them--living in the elite London neighborhood of Hexam Place in Belgravia, is much the same from one day to the next. Cooks, au pairs, and maids get the inhabitants of the houses out the door in the mornings, whereupon drivers chauffeur them to work, meetings, or school. Housekeepers clean the messes left behind, nannies care for the babies and toddlers, and assistants see to the various needs of those residents who don’t work. Stability and orderliness, for the most part, prevail.
As with the majority of first impressions, though, things aren’t actually quite as tidy as they might initially seem. To wit... Montserrat, the au pair who works for the Still family (and who seems to have no real job duties aside from sneaking Mrs. Still’s soap-opera actor boyfriend into the house through the basement entrance when Mr. Still is at work) is always on the make to score more dosh so she can buy herself fancier things. Rabia, a young Muslim widow who works as the Stills’ nanny, dotes on the children--while keeping her own tragic past deeply buried (and trying to put off her devout father’s attempts to marry her off again). Thea, who teaches computer literacy skills to the elderly by day, is much put-upon by the gay couple who not only rent out one floor of their home to her but also view her as their unpaid servant; it’s always “fix this, cook that, clean this, find that,” with them. (To be fair, though, Thea does a lot of things she doesn’t really want to do, including shopping for the invalid spinster who rents the lower level of the house, and becoming engaged to a man she unsuccessfully tries to talk herself into liking.) Henry, the handsome (if hopelessly naive) young fellow who works as Lord Studley’s chauffeur, nervously spends his off-work hours shuttling between servicing Mrs. Studley and seeing the couple’s young-adult daughter (who has a place of her own). Dex, the neighborhood loony, does the gardening for some of the residents... and also hears the voice of God talking to him on his cell phone. And then there’s elderly June, who’s functioned as the housekeeper, dogwalker, and companion for more than sixty years to her even-more-elderly employer (a self-styled “princess” with vague claims to a dodgy Italian title). June frets over conditions in the neighborhood, both out on the street (doggy waste bags left on the sidewalks!) and within the walls of each house (poor Henry, whose boss makes him wait in the car for hours!), so she goes about setting up a special group open only to those who function in a service capacity.
The St. Zita Society, as she dubs their club (naming it for the patron saint of the serving class), meets once a month to discuss issues and plan the occasional group outing. It convenes at a little pub located just down the street--where considerably more drinking than discussion of club business takes place, to June’s disappointment.
It is thus amid the oft-scandalous comings and goings, confidences kept (and reneged on), deals made, gossip shared, shifting allegiances, group meetings, and the ever-watchful eyes of more than one Hexam Place resident that life goes on... until the shocking disappearance of someone they all know--and the lies and truths each resident proceeds to tell (or not)--puts everyone on the block under intense police scrutiny.
What once seemed such a quiet, posh neighborhood is no longer; now, it’s nothing so much as a powder keg, just waiting for the right spark to set it off...
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Our fascination with the wealthy and their servants is nothing new; numerous “classics” are about poverty-stricken individuals forced by circumstance to go into service for the rich (often, their better-off relatives). TV programs--particularly the period pieces “Upstairs, Downstairs” and, more recently, “Downton Abbey”--have likewise achieved great success catering to our interest in (and in the latter case, obsession with) the same.
What Rendell manages with The St. Zita Society is to make the theme current, and it’s something she does fabulously well. Not only do we get the feeling of living in the neighborhood, we also get to be voyeurs, seeing what everyone sees, knows, and does at any all times. (The idea of who knows--or has seen--precisely what becomes very important as events play out.)
How Rendell portrays each character is what makes her work stand out, though. She clearly empathizes with those on either side of the have/have-not continuum, and shows good, very ordinary, and rather evil people on each side. Because she “gets” human nature, her characters never fail to make believably “in-character” decisions... and the consequences which follow their conclusions and actions always ring true.
Filled with suspenseful moments, The St. Zita Society is a fascinating tale of the rather ordinary... and is highly recommended.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Mousies