WKnown as cleaners, maids, housemaids, janitors or maids, those who do cleaning have recently been reformulated. Originally seen as either comic or evil, they have become symbols of resilience, keeping anarchy and Covid at bay. Next week, Paul Galliko’s charming comedy, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, begins as a movie with Leslie Manville in the lead. It will highlight a job that went from supporting character to hero.
Perhaps the first cleaner in English literature is Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which connects “sweeping dust behind the door” to house blessing. However, anarchy, whether domestic or political, has long been seen as a female business or not. For those who resent the imposition of domestic order, the cleaners can be evil and even a vengeful existence—most famously depicted in Jean Genet’s play, The Maids. But for those who feel comfortable only having their own dirt lifted by someone else, the cleanser brings joy.
Having worked as a cleaner myself during my twenties, I know that no other job is so important, low-paying, or interesting to me as a novelist. The cleaner has a worm view of their employers, not only in terms of cleanliness but because they are automatically assumed to be stupid or even subhuman. My hero in The Golden Rule is a graduate student and a poor and abused single mother who is sucked up by a rich woman in a plot to murder each other’s husbands. You discover a completely different story as a result of cleaning up the victim’s intended home.
1. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Galliko
The novels about detergents are usually Cinderella-style. In 1958, Ms. Harris works for “human pigs” in Belgravia, and craves a Dior dress. When you win soccer pools, you go to Paris to buy one. With so much of her time, she’s innocent on the outside, but the magic of Galico’s portrayal of an arrogant Cockney battle with the arrogant French wins out. Although Galico is best known for novels such as The Snow Goose, Mrs. Harris has become one of the author’s best comedic creations. She reappeared in three later books, even becoming a deputy.
2. The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson
In the first adult novel by this top writer of romantic comedy, Anna, an aristocratic Russian exile, gets a job as a “Thweeny” in the home of the poet and dilapidated Earl Westerholme. While wounded, he is tricked into marrying the beautiful, wealthy and eugenic Morell, but the Earl and his cleaner soon fall in love. Her wonderfully hilarious portrait of class relations contains a kernel of fervent anger about arrogance and anti-Semitism: Ibbotson was herself a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.
3. The Maid by Neta Prose
Unlike the bleak Netflix series of the same name, this one is fun. Larkey, orphaned Molly is “the last person anyone would invite to a party.” She loves her job as a cleaner at a luxury hotel in New York, but when she finds the body of a guest, she is framed for his murder and must turn into a detective. Molly makes us delight in what is crisply starchy, perfectly tidy and formally correct, but as a nervous rambunctious in a dangerous city, she also has a terrible inability to detect dishonesty.
4. The Promise by Damon Galgot
A darker relationship is depicted in this 2021 Booker Prize-winning novel. The dying mother promised the black maid Salome who nursed her that she would have her home and her land in South Africa. However, decade after decade, Ma’s selfish and greedy descendants ignored the promise. Although Salome is largely invisible and inaudible, she represents the “invisible” blacks whose rights were stolen during apartheid. Four decades later, when the promise was finally fulfilled, it was too late.
5. Help Kathryn Stockett
A young, white graduate of Mississippi in the 1960s, Skeeter becomes fascinated by the lives of black maids from her friends. Her eyes open as she investigates their circumstances, and she gradually gains their confidence when paying for information to write a column in a magazine about how to clean and care for the house—something she knows nothing of. The good and entertaining novel, it tries to be fair in its portrayal of a world that, like a promise, is steeped in racism.
6. My Cleanser by Maggie J
Gee’s novel makes a mockery of the British version of racism and inequality in the liberal chatter classes. Vanessa, a white working mother, has tapped into her Ugandan cleaner. In London for a degree she did not have enough money to get, Mary became very attached to Vanessa’s young son Justin. When he suffers a breakdown at age 21, “Vanessa” Mary must bring back from Kampala. A cheerful character with an almost anthropological eye, Mary is offered twice the money to return, and the two women’s relationship must be renegotiated.
7. Cleaning by meshLou Kirsch
Horrific and hilarious, this memoir tells how the writer, as an anxious student with increasing dependence on Valium, took on cleaning jobs in Boston to help make ends meet. It gave her a window into the life she was hoping to gain. However, when she got this one in London in the ’80s, she was the one who wreaked havoc on her home and family with her drug addiction. At 50, clean and tidy again, living alone in a Hackney bed, Michelle finds herself ending her working life as it had begun, “at a stupid job to do when she can’t do anything else”.
8. Evidence For cleaning women from Lucia Berlin
A collection of 43 short stories about women with all kinds of jobs, from console operators to nursing. The title story is one of the smartest in a brutal series of sentimental X-rays as its anonymous observer rides the bus from job to job, noting that “women’s voices always rise by two octaves when they talk to cleaning women or cats.” It’s highly autobiographical, it’s gritty, funny, and full of detail that makes this an exceptional work of the sixties novel.
9. Nickel and Dim by Barbara Ehrenreich
In this scathing classic of secret reporting, the late journalist worked as a cleaner after the 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 so low and rents so high,” she says after noting how “nobody, no matter how low, is really ‘unskilled’.” Her exposure to the inhumane effects of this failed to shame corporate or middle-class employers, even though she herself said she would never hire a cleaner.
10. A Maid’s Diary by Octave Mirbeau
Celestine works at the Normandy Palace. Her life, both graphic and heartbreaking, reveals the falsity of the nineteenth century about French anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, greed and injustice. With job insecurity, financially and sexually exploited by her employers, the picture this book paints of her life as a minimum wage with no hope of improving her situation in life is a timeless one. “We have no time for illness, we have no time to suffer … Suffering is the master’s luxury,” she says. Mirbeau’s shocking satire was adapted for cinema by Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel, and is still as new as it was when he wrote it.