Above and behind the front door
Lies grown-up world
Master and Mistress reign unquestioned
Among the inherited furniture.
Upstairs at the back is the liminal milky bubble
Nursery world crammed with babies
And their nurses and nursery maids.
Beyond the baize door, the back door
Twisty passages and tiny rooms
Separate world of service
Rotten wood and peeling paint
Stone flags seep and freeze
No worlds warm in winter
Flurrying, hurrying, maids with buckets
Ethel, Ruby, Mabel, Alice
Brooms and sweepers, blacking, beeswax
Family poised helpless on a heap of helpers
Like a hut on a hill.
In the back-passage bells jangle
Pulled by impatient hands remote in bedroom
Drawing room, parlour, salon
More hot water, pressed clothes, coals
Breakfast, lunch and dinner served
Prepared by Cook’s red raw hands
Complete with ceremonial fat gold wedding ring
On hand never held by husband
She’s Mrs in name only
For respect you see
Nursery world floats between
Where dwell the infants and their nurse
Miss Mary, Master Michael, Nanny Smith
Meals on trays brought up by grumbling maids.
Sit on a tuffet near the fireguard
Supping bread and milk in your bib
Nappies and baby clothes gently steam
On wooden racks
None of the worlds are immune from winter
Warm breath freezes to icy mist
Water solid in bedroom jugs
Frost, fog, yellow and choking
Bitter wind and snow
Step outside and chill bites
Raising chilblains no remedy can soothe
Fires rustle as coals settle and cinders fall
Gas fires bubble violet flames
Bring blood back to blue hands.
Even indoors beyond the glow
A wall of cold
Spring will come
Life stirs inside and out
Snowdrops, snowy blossom replace snow
Warmth summons forth
Boot boys and maids transformed to
Brilliantined lads and giggling girls
Promenade in groups
Rich with sex and stirring senses
Eyes slide by hoping to meet,
As elemental as animals in the ark
Master obeys the sap’s rising
Justified by psalm’s dictates,
Begets upon the Mistress a full
Quiverful within their lawful bed
To populate the nursery world
Popped out like puppies
Viewed daily for a precious hour
Otherwise left to other’s hands
As that’s the way it was back then
Woe betide the maid
Who falls to a young man’s fancy
Her increase a disgrace
Out of the house she goes
To an unforgiving world
Where babies are a regulated commodity
Reserved for the safely wed.
© Josa Keyes, 2019. All rights reserved.
‘Three Worlds One House’ was inspired by Church Bells and Tram Cars, a Vicarage Childhood, by Mary Denison, in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, Special Collections, Brunel Library, Brunel University London.
I read three memoirs from the Burnett Archive altogether, and wanted to make poems from themes in two of them, both about vanished worlds just a couple of generations behind us. ‘Three Worlds One House’ describes one home as a paradigm of rigid social silos in wider society. In some middle – and all upper – class homes, the head of the household and his wife lived entirely separately, not only from their own children, tucked away in a nursery, but also from the support system of servants looking after them. I also wanted to highlight the plight of girls who fell pregnant outside marriage, and how society mistreated the single mum – and still does.
Josa Keyes was born in Kent. She read English Literature at Newnham College, Cambridge, and is currently studying towards a Masters at Brunel University London. She started her career at Vogue, as a finalist in the Vogue Talent Contest, and has held positions as a commissioning editor for Country Living, Elle Decoration and the Times. An early adopter, she embraced digital professionally from 1995, and has swapped between magazines and digital content design as a contractor ever since. A parallel career writing fiction and poetry resulted in her first completed novel, One Apple Tasted, published by Elliott & Thompson in 2009. She indie published her second novel Sail Upon the Land in 2014, and it was long-listed for a Historical Novel Society Award in 2016. Her chapbook, My Love Life and Other Disasters, will be published in September 2019. Josa Keyes lives in West London, has two grown-up children and a teenager, and tweets @JosaKeyes.