The Angel of Charleston; Grace Higgens, Housekeeper to the Bloomsbury Group

by Stewart MacKay,Published by The British Library, London, 2013

As a long-time aficionado of all things Bloomsbury, and the so-called ‘Bloomsbury Group’ of writers and artists in particular, I couldn’t resist buying this biography of the person who became the mainstay of the household in Charleston, the Sussex country home of Vanessa Bell, her children, Julian, Quentin and Angelica, her husband Clive Bell, and her live-in companion and fellow-artist, Duncan Grant.

Born Grace Germany to a Norfolk farming family, Grace entered domestic service at the age of sixteen as housemaid to Vanessa Bell at her home in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, moving with the family to their country house at Charleston as well as travelling with them to the south of France on holiday.

Grace was a pretty girl with a great sense of fun but little formal education. She had learned how to cook and look after a house as the eldest of seven children, and her role in the Bell household gradually evolved from that of housemaid to that of nanny to the children and later housekeeper. It was Duncan Grant who dubbed her ‘the angel of Charleston,’ presumably for her skills in the spheres to which she was appointed.

Vanessa Bell’s painting of Grace wearing an apron and standing at the kitchen table, in the throes of preparing a meal adorns the cover of the book. Her face and figure radiate a sense of calm and of being intent on her purpose, while the root vegetables on the table in front of her indicate the kind of meal that is being prepared. Vanessa gave the painting the title ‘The Kitchen.’

The book is based on the diary Grace kept for some of the time she was at Charleston, which became the family’s permanent home during and after the Second World War, having served as a weekend and holiday retreat beforehand. She also accompanied the family on some of their visits to the south of France, and in her diary she describes her impressions of the local town (Cassis) and its population. This was in the late 1920s and early 1930s, before Cassis became a fashionable resort for the rich and famous, and it is interesting to read her views that “The women here grow beards and moustaches and go bald… The Frenchwomen wash at stone wash places and always with cold water, and instead of soap they mostly use the ash of wood, after it had been burnt… That the women have to carry the things and not the men when out walking with them… That the women sit mostly just outside their houses to sew, in summer and winter… That women carry their parcels on their heads…”

It would seem that there have been quite a few changes in the way of life of people in the French countryside since then. While Grace was in France she received lessons in French, together with Julian, from a local teacher, and this enabled her to buy provisions for the household and talk to the local population.

There seems to have been a sense of camaraderie among the various members of the domestic staff of the Charleston household as well as with those of the households of Vanessa’s sister, Virginia Woolf, and of Maynard Keynes, both of whom lived nearby. Grace and others would sometimes spend an evening at the local pub, the Barley Mow, where they encountered local farming folk with many of whom they were on friendly terms.

It is interesting to note that, in contrast to common practice in England at the time, when Grace got married she continued to live and work at Charleston, together with her husband, Walter Higgens. Walter was employed for a while there as a gardener, but eventually found work elsewhere.

The diary entries are interspersed with comments from the editor of this little book (only 150 pages, with many illustrations), as well as with information gleaned from interviews with surviving friends and members of the family. Through them all Grace comes across as a person who was warm and caring, someone who kept the household going through thick and thin, and a figure who could carry off a relationship with her employers that was friendly but not intimate, respectful but not remote, and who loved and was loved by each and every one of them.