Gracie brooded on her lot. Apprenticed to a life as a store clerk: a life of obsequious servitude, long hours of unremitting boredom ending every other day in watery cabbage soup. Uncongenial workmates, nearly all of them silly, giggling, and gossipy, obsessed with film stars, boyfriends, and that loud obnoxious swing and jazz music. But what choice did she have? Her brother had, albeit reluctantly, paid for her ‘registration’ as an apprentice after her grammar-school scholarship expired, in the vain hope that a ‘superior’ shop would provide her with more ‘opportunity’ than his first choice for her, that of ‘domestic service,’ as jobs for housemaids were then called.
Her brother Walter was sixteen years older, and the up-and-coming headmaster of a village school. His bride was also a teacher. Gracie had lived with them in a small crowded flat, until school ended, and now Hilda wanted a house, a car, and a baby. They both wanted Gracie off their hands. Their father, a simple farm labourer who did not live with them, had no say in the matter. So domestic service it was to be. Gracie was to be trained as a maid. Her brother gave her his judgment:
“With your education, you won’t start at the bottom as a scullery maid. You might be hired as a chambermaid or even a housekeeper– after some experience. You know the gentry are always bemoaning the lack of suitable help these days. Who knows, you might even get a job as a lady’s maid or become a governess, and end up marrying Mr. Rochester!”
She had been annoyed. “You’re a century too late, and I’m not Jane Eyre!”
It was the eleventh-hour intervention of Miss Prickett, her headmistress, who had spared Gracie an ill-paid downstairs life in an upstairs world of privilege. She foresaw for her pupil servitude in homes with antiquated facilities, working for householders unable to afford renovations yet determined to keep up appearances with hired “help,” like poor rumpled Archdeacon Philpott. She saw Gracie blacking ancient stoves, carrying buckets of hot water up many staircases, cleaning toilets. She was aghast that a girl of promise from a humble background should be so thoughtlessly cast aside. That such a waste would be contemplated by Gracie’s own brother made it worse. As a teacher himself, he should have known better. She herself knew from her own experience that teaching was often the only way into the ranks of the struggling lower-middle class. It was not called ‘the poor man’s profession’ for nothing. She made an impassioned plea to Walter to re-consider. Her favourite former pupil overheard the conversation from behind the parlour door, her heart in her mouth.
“She is well-read and intelligent. She would make an excellent teacher herself. You must see that.”
“But that costs money,” he complained. “And I don’t have it.”
“Young lady!” The sharp rebuke brought a startled Gracie back from her reverie.