Brilliantly tart American short story writer Lucia Berlin had some great advice for housekeepers. Never befriend cats, always befriend dogs. Never work for psychiatrists, you will go crazy. Take everything your lady gives you and say “thank you”. You can leave it on the bus.
The council is part of its history A Handbook for Housekeepers (also the title of his 1977 collection). Like most of his work, it is strongly autobiographical. She had a turbulent life – too turbulent, some would say – and struggled with trauma and alcoholism. Like many other writers, she took menial jobs to make ends meet, and one of them was cleaning.
House cleaning can be both a necessary evil and an age-old inspiration for writers, especially women. Recently, it’s an occupation that has turned into a bestseller and a Netflix series, thanks to the American writer Stephanie Land, author of the 2019 memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive.
Not that Land could have dreamed of such things when she started cleaning houses to support herself and her little girl. A refugee from domestic violence, she recounted her experience of drudgery and extreme poverty, the majority of employers who treated her like a ghost, and the few who shared their own problems with her. The land is now a reluctant “poverty success” that champions the interests of those more marginalized than itself.
We got ours Housemaid-type stories in Australia. Elizabeth Jolley worked as a housekeeper and her 1981 novel The Claremont Street Journal tells the story of a woman raised “in service” who cleans houses, then tells good gossip about the occupants. She’s been staged her whole life, but finally finds the courage to stand up in a typically dark and funny Jolley conclusion.
Then there is the extreme end of the service described in Sarah Krasnostein The Trauma Cleanser, the true story of a woman who cleaned up houses ransacked by crime or hoarding. The late Sandra Pankhurst fought extraordinary battles in her own life which gave her the empathy and courage to help others in need.
The last Australian novel on this theme is that of Paddy O’Reilly Other houses, in which Lily works as a cleaner in downtown Melbourne while her partner Janks works in a food factory, both determined to build a better life for their daughter Jewelee. O’Reilly was inspired to write her book during lockdown, when she was shocked to see how suddenly and easily hard-working people can descend into despair.
While these histories are valuable as records of a lowly, neglected echelon of society, they are also acute observations of how relatively well-to-do people behave in private. Cleaners see things no one else is allowed to see because they don’t count as observers.