Saturday, 4 January 2014

Dressing The Housemaid's Daughter

When writing my novel, The Housemaid's Daughter, one of the most intriguing challenges was how to dress my female characters accurately for the era and the setting: a sweep of 60-odd years in a small town called Cradock, in the semi-desert Karoo region of South Africa.

The heroine, Ada, had to show in her clothing the constraints she faced in her daily life. So we see her in simple overalls and a doek, the scarf traditionally worn wound around the head. Slowly, though, as her status grows within the walls of Cradock House, she is encouraged by her enlightened Irish employer to leave behind the uniform and the overalls and stand tall in her own clothes. Here is what she says when she finally owns a pair of shoes with heels...
"How proud I was of them! Such shoes will last me for the rest of my life."

Meanwhile, the second heroine of the book, Cathleen, has to adapt her style from cool, drizzly Irish conditions to the demands of searing temperatures and a fierce sun. When Cath is packing to travel to South Africa in 1919, she writes in her diary about what she should take.
"I won't need the fur muff or my one good silk hat, not in Cradock. And Mother, who knows about foreign parts from her brother in India, says the most important thing is to protect my complexion... So - sadly, for I love the silk even though it's ancient - I shall leave it behind and take three plain bonnets and a spare parasol instead.

To get a sense of what Cath might wear, I looked not only to the fashions of the 1930s but also to the 1947 Royal visit to South Africa by the then King and Queen, and the two Princesses Elizabeth (our present Queen) and Margaret. The young Princesses' lovely draped dresses became the inspiration for many of Cathleen's outfits: loose, often low-waisted and, in the words of Ada, "the colour of cream on the top of milk".

In fact, just the sort of dress that many of us would secretly love to wear today...


  1. Here I am in the small town of Vass, North Carolina, U.S. and yet I've been transported to South Africa through your amazing first novel. I have been tearful through much of your book and am still in tears, having just finished the last page, but they are now tears of joy and hopefulness. I am an 80 year old white woman who has seen many changes in our country, including the elimination of our middle class, and I am thrilled that we have elected the first black president and have high hopes that it will help to merge the color lines once and for all.
    Please, please keep on writing. I can't wait for your next book.

  2. Just finished your book. The comparisons with The Help seemed off target to me. Housekeeper's Daughter is not only more balanced and nuanaced and fairer and racially sensitive, but it is richer in language and tone, much better written than The Help. Would align it more with Olive Shreiner's work or Marlene Van Niekerk's than with The Help. Please continue writing! A very touching and honest novel.

    I am a 70 year old librarian living in Santa Rosa California USA. South Africa is a magnificent land. My dream is to hop in the cablecar and ascend just once again to Table Mountain, in the spring, and hike down to Camp's Bay. There are more species of plants on this small area than in all of Great Britain. I have travelled the Karoo, Transki, the mountains and garden route, even the Blue Train. Your language useage transported me back - thank you.

    I have my Chopin complete works out hunting for Raindrop. The musical theme added such richness. The only thing you can add to the next book is the wonderful cooking - the poikipos, brei, the curries, the bibotie and briedes,milktarts and cooksisters.


  3. Thank you for your kind words about my novel! South Africa is, indeed, a most seductive and beautiful country. I am delighted that my story took you back...
    Please spread the word about The Housemaid's Daughter to your friends and family - and to your readers at the library!

  4. Just wanted to let you know that I have continued to spread the word and know of 3 who have purchased your book, including my daughter who is not an avid reader like I am but who loved it. Are you working on a 2nd?