The Housemaid’s Daughter

The Housemaid's DaughterThe Housemaid’s Daughter by Barbara Mutch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The child of a black housemaid of the white English gentry in the early 1900’s, Ada is left with a dilemma. Her master, (who really doesn’t have a lot to say in this novel and so his character is a bit of a puzzle), has taken advantage of his wife’s absence and ‘helped himself’ to Ada. In this book she does not resist — in fact is almost willingly submissive, without being flirtatious or encouraging his advances. This is the part that some reviewers take exception to, but I think the author was merely portraying the life of a black servant in Africa in that century as realistically as she could (and I appreciate the author’s careful writing without giving graphic details!) Regardless of how or why it happened, however, Ada now has to decide how she is going to raise a child on her own.

“I am the black woman with the coloured child. Everybody knows me, even in this place where I am a newcomer. Even so I am lonely. Such loneliness, I have discovered, does not yield when a future beckons. The birth of Dawn meant I was up at night to feed her, and in the dark of the hut a hollowness plucked away at me. If only I could heal my heart…

….The only time this loneliness faded was when I played for my students and let the music carry me away.”

Ada’s mistress is kind and keeps a journal that Ada finds fascinating (Ada was taught to read which in itself, considering her race and the time period, is unusual.) Ada’s mistress makes sure that she learns to play the piano, seeing that Ada has a natural talent for it. So Ada finds her way to a school and convinces the headmaster to take her on as a piano teacher (what *did* women in her position and environment do in those days?)

Ada knows she has done wrong, and comes up against prejudice, but she also receives kindness:

“I stared down at what he had left. He had left some of the more valuable coins for me to take back. I looked up at him and in that moment I think he knew. Knew that this child sprang from one of his patients, someone he knew a home where I had been taught English, a family that I had run from. Knew, also, that this was all the money I had in the world…

I could feel his eyes on my neck as I left, like the eyes of the congregation on me when I sat at the front of the church beside Madam and Master for young Master Phil’s funeral. But the chemist’s eyes were kinder than the eyes of the congregation. He had seen my sin but did not condemn.”

However, sooner or later, Ada’s mistress (whom she calls, “Madam”), finds her and realizes by looking at the child, who the culprit is (which in itself tells you a lot about her husband). Because he is a man, and once again because of the times, Madam can’t do much about it, but she *does* take Ada and the child, named Dawn, back.

“Madam looked at me and she looked at her husband’s child. Her eyes were clear, not sore and weeping as they had been when she was at the school, or on the day Miss Rose had left, or the day young Master Phil died. Perhaps all the weeping had already been done.

‘Let there be no misunderstanding between us, Ada,’ she said quietly, leaning forward to stroke Dawn’s tiny foot, ‘only acceptance and the need to go forward.’

What of forgiveness? I wanted to say. Can you ever forgive me for doing what I thought was my duty? Surely that was beyond us, surely that was too much to ask. ‘I have sinned,’ I said, unable to meet her eyes.

‘The sin is not yours alone to bear,’ she said firmly.”

I don’t know where Barbara Mutch learned to get ‘inside’ her characters and show us how they think, what they feel, how they act, and make it all seem so real to the reader, but somehow, she has captured the essence of novel writing. She is able to take multiple personalities and forge motivations within their beings and portray it subtly to the reader. Within the character of Ada, Ada does a lot of soul-searching to come to terms with the decisions she has made in her life that have consequences that she could not have foreseen. This is the part of life that we all experience; the results of our decisions, and how to move forward from them:

“Why did I believe that duty was my only option? Even though duty and loyalty are often on opposite sides it does not mean that one has to be sacrificed for the other. And if my duty and loyalty had been to God the Father – as it should have been – then I would not have had to make such a sacrifice, I would not have had to choose between Master and Madam. I could have chosen God’s way instead, and He would have told me to say no. Yet even without God’s way, why did it take such time and pain for me to learn that I had the right to say no for myself as well?

Even if saying no might have meant losing my job, my home….

I am learning, I am learning.

I lifted the kettle off the stove and poured tea into two cups for Lindiwe and me. We still had a small amount of milk left and I smelt it to check it was fresh before stirring it into the tea.

‘I think your Madam is a clever woman,’ Lindiwe murmured after a while, sipping from her cup in the gathering darkness. ‘She wouldn’t offer you a place unless she was sure your Master would leave you alone. And the only way she could know this is if they have decided so together.’

Somehow Barbara Mutch has created a character in Ada that goes beyond “real”. Her voice is unforgettable! Her maturity and acceptance in what life has to offer her is something I still grasp at! Ada has resilience and finds creative solutions to the problems life offers her. But there are still difficulties because of the times and the societal mores that Ada lives in:

“As with every friend faced with the evidence of my shame, Mrs. Pumile swung for several moments between condemnation and sympathy. ‘Your Madam asked you back?’ This I could see was causing her great difficulty. That a white Madam could be forgiving enough to welcome back the black person with whom her husband had sinned….

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘She wished to give Dawn a good future.’

‘Your Madam,’ observed Mrs. Pumile after a pause,’ could teach many Madams how to be. Welcome back, Ada,’ she thrust her hand further through the hedge to grasp mine, ‘but do not parade the child about!’ She leant forward and hissed, ‘This apartheid never leaves us alone. Keep the child out of sight, away from visitors.’

Madam in her lonely marraige, and without the solace of a nurturing relationship with her own daughter Rose, had turned to Ada to fill the gaps in her heart.

Barbara Mutch’s descriptive writing is beautiful! There are so many passages I would love to quote from this book, but already this review is getting lengthy!

The novel continues with Ada’s life, Dawn’s maturing, the themes of apartheid and prejudice, and is absolutely riveting.

“I waited in the doorway, as I had waited on the day Mrs Cath was to return from Johannesburg. I could still see Master sitting behind the desk, in the dark suit that she liked and the shirt I had starched and ironed, telling me he was leaving to fetch Mrs Cath as the train might be early. He never looked up he never once lifted his eyes to meet mine. It was as if his lying with me had never happened. Like the white people on the street who looked away from Dawn so they didn’t have to accept that she existed.”

There is so much to like in this book! the relationship (which was really not normal in those days) progresses:

“The kaia was newly painted and Madam had moved Mama’s old bed and rug in there, along with a cot for Dawn like I had seen for sale in newspapers for large amounts of water. Although there was no hot water – we used the downstairs bathroom in the main house for bathing – there was a basin with a cold tap. There was also a proper toilet with a chain that pulled and made Dawn’s eyes widen with excitement, and the floor was smooth concrete polished to a red shine. Madam had worked hard. She had even put up curtains for us….Dawn had never seen curtains before.

‘Thank you, Madam,” I said, sitting on the soft bed, letting the old harmony steal over me. I’d forgotten what it was like to have such a refuge, and such kindness given so freely.”

Why is Madam so kind to Ada? the author contrasts her behavior with that of her husband:

“How was it that a man could look upon his own child – his own blood – in the way that a stranger would? How was it possible that there could be no stirring in his heart for his own daughter? Then I remembered what Lindiwe had said to me on the day Dawn was born. She said that God was not like the white man. He did not hate Dawn for my sin. So I should have expected that Master might do so….”

There are themes, questions, struggles, that still exist today in our world. Ada struggles between her own guilt and how to make sure her child of mixed blood will survive in an apartheid society:

“Later, I looked this up (‘compensation’) in the dictionary and found it meant payment for a loss or injury. If this was so, then the return to Cradock House was all the payment I needed, although nothing can ever compensate Dawn for a father who does not see her and a skin that is neither black nor white….. ‘I know about the laws,’ I said to Jake, relieved that I could talk to someone instead of hiding behind my tangle of lies. ‘I could go to jail. Master could go to jail…’

He touched my arm. ‘More chance of him than you.’

…’But why?” I asked. Surely the risk would be equal or perhaps even greater for me?

“Ada, dear Ada,’ Jake murmured, ‘the white man’s sin is greater because it is more public. The white man falls further than the black woman.’ He grimaced. “the newspapers make more of his fall.’

I am not sure what makes novels impact us the way they do. Is it it the writing, the prose, the way the words flow across the page? is it the characters and how they interact, that generates a chord of sympathy or identification in our hearts? or is it the setting that may call to remembrance a warm summer day, or a cold winter evening, with comforts of hot tea by the fireside?

Whatever the case, “The Housemaid’s Daughter” is one of those novels that I will not soon forget.

“I was careful to say nothing that could cause her to regret my return, or the forgiveness that she had somehow found in her heart for me. Yet I wished to know more. It was time to know more….

‘Some people say they want a war, a confrontation. I can’t believe they’d be so foolish, but I’ve learnt men can be like that over many things.’ She picked up her pen and began to write more labels. “It won’t affect us, Ada. Not here in Cradock.” She looked across at me and her eyes softened. “You’ll be safe here.’

My copy of “The Housemaid’s Daughter” was from the library (hardcover), but it comes out in paperback in January 2015.


About Theresa

I live in an old farmhouse in upstate New York (no, *not* the big city!) in the country with my family, two dogs, two calves, and two horses. I love to cross stitch, quilt, read, and look at needlework blogs :) and I love coffee *and* tea!
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