What the housekeeper saw

Suellen Dainty
Opinion - Books Thursday, 30 March 2017

Suellen Dainty has drawn on her experience of running a B&B for her debut psychological thriller

Oh, to be one of those writers who wake up one morning with the plot of an entire novel outlined in their minds, ready to be written down. The story just came to me, these writers tell their family and friends. I saw it in a dream. I recognised the characters as if they came from my own family.

I'd love to be able to say this is what happened when I started writing The Housekeeper, but that would be an outright lie. The truth is that lots of little ideas popped up. These ideas drifted in and out of my mind for a while. Sometimes they were hazy, and at other times they were clear as a bell. Sometimes I forgot about them altogether; occasionally, but not very often, I couldn't let them go.

Rewind the clock. It's eight years ago and I'm in the kitchen of one of London's top Michelin-starred restaurants, Le Gavroche, talking to the chef and patron, Michel Roux Jr. I've just been hired to write his memoir and am trying not to show how excited I am. There is so much happening. All around me people are chopping, slicing and dicing. Pots of delicious smelling sauces are bubbling on the stoves. Chefs are braising and grilling, tasting and stirring. The country's best produce is being prepared for London's most discerning diners - fat turbot, grass fed beef and tender lamb bred in the Welsh mountains. To accompany these are tender baby vegetables grown to order from the best organic gardens around the country. Nearby, in the pastry section, another team is preparing cakes and tarts of exquisite perfection.

It's no accident that there are so many television series about cooking and restaurant kitchens. They have the classic ingredients of traditional drama - the conflict of different characters thrown together in close quarters, the constant pressure and competition and the desire to win, no matter the cost.

Of course, I'm not the only one who has thought that a restaurant or café might be a good place to set a novel. Think of Herman Koch's The Dinner or John Wells' film Burnt.

So I sat down and started to write. I wrote about a young female chef called Anne who fell in love with her boss. But I discovered quite quickly that my story wasn't working. Nothing was happening. No-one was going anywhere. Even I was bored, which is a very bad sign. Then I began looking at my own life, and somehow the story became clearer.

In between trying to write a novel, and ghosting Michel's memoir, I was also running a B&B in the English countryside, where I lived for a decade until moving back to London.

People who have never run a B&B often say that it must be fun having lots of different people in your house, a bit like having loads of dinner parties and getting paid for it. A hostess with benefits.

Not quite. It's much more like being an invisible maid in your own home. People, even the nicest politest people you can meet, don't often pay attention to the person who pours their tea or coffee, who cooks their breakfast or tidies their bedrooms. They only see what you can do for them.

I didn't mind, because I'm quite nosy and I could watch and listen and they never noticed a thing. And because all sorts of people came and went, I got to know about so many people's lives.

Again, I wasn't the first person to think that a housekeeper or servant might make a good character in a story. Downton Abbey proved that point through six internationally successful series, as did Daphne du Maurier when she created the mesmeric Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. And who could forget Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton in Kazuo Ishiguro's stupendous The Remains of the Day?

So I took my experience in the kitchens of Le Gavroche, mixed it up with my experience of running a B&B, and started again. I came up with a character called Anne Morgan, who'd had a very weird childhood with no family to speak of. So, of course, all she wanted was a family of her own. For a while, she found that family in a busy restaurant kitchen. But when things went horribly wrong and she was forced to leave, she landed another job, as a housekeeper. This was the point where my B&B life came into play. I channelled that feeling of being a fly-on-the-wall, privy to everyone's secrets, with the drama one can find in a restaurant setting, to create the world of The Housekeeper.

I wrote the novel while I was living in the country and spending every weekend cooking for other people and cleaning up after them. Looking back, it influenced me more than I realised.

It made me see how much I enjoyed cooking, and then to understand how someone like my character, Anne, a lonely and isolated young woman, might want literally to cook her way into the heart of this glamorous, high profile family she works for.

As well as discovering how much I liked to cook, it made me realise how much you could discover about people when you were cleaning and tidying their rooms; what they read, how they slept, and even if they had sex.

It wasn't snooping, because I was doing my job, but there were times when I felt uncomfortable about what some people left lying about. Perhaps they thought I wouldn't notice their open diaries or their underwear on the floor. I doubt that they gave it a moment's thought, but it seeped into my consciousness. I knew how Anne could very easily discover so much about her employers as she made their bed in the morning and ironed their clothes.

As well, there was something about the repetitive and mindless nature of cleaning and washing and ironing that allowed me the mental space to think about my story and what might happen next.

And so, every week, after my guests had left and I had loaded the washing machine and the dishwasher, I would sit down at the kitchen table and begin to write.

Photo: Mat Smith

The Housekeeper by Suellen Dainty is out today, 30 March (Simon & Schuster £8.99).

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