WWhether known as cleaners, quacks, housewives, janitors, or maids, those who clean have recently been recast. Originally seen as comical or sinister, they have become emblems of resilience, keeping chaos and covid at bay. Next week, Paul Gallico’s charming comedy, Mrs Harris goes to Paris, opens like a movie with Leslie Manville in the lead. It will highlight a job that has gone from being a supporting character to being a hero.
Perhaps the first cleaner in English literature is Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, associating “sweeping the dust behind the door” with blessing a house. Yet clutter, whether domestic or political, has long been seen as women’s or unskilled work. For those who resent the imposition of domestic order, cleaners can be sinister and even vengeful presences, most famously portrayed in Jean Genet’s The Maids. But for those who only feel relief when someone else removes the dirt, the cleanser is a bringer of joy.
Having worked as a cleaner myself for my 20 years, I know that there is no other job as crucial, as poorly paid, or as interesting to me as a novelist. A cleaner has a worm’s eye view of employers, not just in terms of cleanliness, but because they are automatically presumed to be stupid or even subhuman. My own heroine in The Golden rule is an impoverished and abused graduate and single mother who is tricked by a wealthy woman into a plot to murder the other’s husbands. She discovers a very different story as a result of cleaning the victim’s house from her.
1. Mrs Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico
Novels about cleaners are usually variants of Cinderella. In 1958, Mrs. Harris works for “human pigs” in Belgravia and longs for a Dior dress. When she wins the football pools, she goes to Paris to buy one. Being very much of her time, she is an innocent abroad, but the allure of Gallico’s portrayal of the plucky Cockney going into battle with the smug Frenchman is winning. Although Gallico was best known for such novels as The Snow Goose, Mrs Harris became one of the author’s most beloved comedic creations; she reappears in three subsequent books, even becoming a deputy.
two. The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson
In the first adult novel from this supreme romantic-comedy writer, his aristocratic Russian exile, Anna, gets a job as a “teenager” in the idyllic but dilapidated home of the Earl of Westerholme. While injured, he has been tricked into marrying the beautiful, rich and terribly eugenicist Muriel, but soon the Count and his maid fall in love. Her exquisitely amusing portrayal of class relations contains a core of white-hot anger about snobbery and anti-Semitism: Ibbotson herself was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.
3. Nita Prose’s Maid
Unlike the gloomy Netflix series of the same name, this one is a joy. Larky, orphaned Molly is “the last person anyone invites to a party.” She loves her job as a cleaner at a fancy New York hotel, but when she finds the body of a guest, she’s framed for murder and she must become a detective. Molly makes us feel the pleasure of her so she’s crisply starched, perfectly tidy and formally correct, but as a neurodivergent person in a dangerous city, she also has a terrible inability to detect dishonesty.
Four. Damon Galgut’s Promise
A darker relationship is depicted in this 2021 Booker Prize-winning novel. The dying mama promises the devoted black maid Salome, who cares for her, that she will be given her own home and land in South Africa. Yet decade after decade, Ma’s selfish and greedy descendants ignore her promise. Although she is largely unseen and unheard, Salomé represents the “invisible” blacks whose rights have been stolen during apartheid. Four decades later, when she finally keeps the promise, it’s too little too late.
5. Help from Kathryn Stockett
Skeeter, a young white Mississippi graduate in the 1960s, is intrigued by the lives of her friends’ black maids. Her eyes widen as she investigates her condition, and she slowly gains her trust by paying for information to write a magazine column on how to clean and take care of a house, something she doesn’t know about. any. Kind-hearted and entertaining, the novel attempts to be unbiased in its portrayal of a world that, like The Promise’s, is steeped in racism.
6. My Maggie Gee Cleaner
Gee’s novel lampoons the British version of racism and inequality in the chatty liberal classes. Vanessa, a white working mother, has exploited her cleaner in Uganda. In London to do a degree for which she has insufficient funds, Mary has grown very fond of Vanessa’s young son, Justin. When she suffers a nervous breakdown at age 21, Vanessa must retrieve Mary from Kampala. A charming character with an almost anthropological eye, Mary is offered double the money to return, and the two women’s relationship must be renegotiated.
7. Clean up by Michethe kirsch
Both heartbreaking and hilarious, this memoir tells how, as an anxious student with a growing dependence on Valium, the writer took cleaning jobs in Boston to help make ends meet. She gave him a window into the life that she hoped to acquire. However, when she gets this in 1980s London, it is she who is making a mess of her home and her family due to drug addiction. At 50, a cleaner and cleaner again, living alone in a Hackney flat, Michele finds herself ending her working life as she began it, “in a silly job you do when you can’t really do anything else.”
8. a manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
A collection of 43 short stories about women struggling in all kinds of jobs, from telephone operators to nurses. The title story is one of the most brilliant in a brutal series of emotional x-rays in which its anonymous observer travels by bus from one job to another and observes how “women’s voices always rise two octaves when they speak with cleaning women or with cats”. Highly autobiographical, they are gritty, funny, and full of details that make this an exceptional work of 1960s fiction.
9. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
In this searing classic of undercover reporting, the late journalist worked as a cleaner after US federal welfare reform in 1998 pushed four million women into minimum wage jobs. “It doesn’t take an economics degree to see that wages are too low and rents too high,” she says after noting how “no one, however humble, is really ‘unqualified.'” Her exposure of the dehumanizing effects of this failed to embarrass corporate or middle-class employers, although she herself said she would never hire a cleaner.
10 Diary of a Waitress by Octave Mirbeau
Célestine works in a Norman castle. His life, both comic and heartbreaking, debunks 19th-century French anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, greed and injustice. Jobless, financially and sexually exploited by her employers, the picture she paints in this book of her life as a minimum wage slave with no hope of improving her lot in life is timeless. “We don’t have time to be sick, we don’t have time to suffer… suffering is a master’s luxury,” she says. Mirbeau’s demeaning satire was adapted for the screen by Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel, and is as fresh as when he wrote it.