A novel about a man who rents a house for the season and keeps having problems with the servants, especially the particularly pretty cook. 1916.
Sometimes reading historical fiction is stressful. There was that moment around page 750 of A Horseman Riding By when I stumbled across a blatant historical inaccuracy…and then spent the next 400 pages dreading another one, but also worrying I wouldn’t be able to spot the next one so easily. Or, like with the latest book I read (Shadow of a Lady), the author seemed so preoccupied with getting the history right, it fell flat in comparison with the much more interesting, purely fictional parts.
And yet, historical fiction often provides a nice compromise between getting the story you want, in the time period you love, while not having to struggle through arcane terms and outmoded writing conventions. Come Out of the Kitchen! stands in that small Edwardian window where no compromises are needed, though. Its prose is fresh and accessible (although I did have a good, juvenile chuckle when the hero’s mood improved after he’d mounted a woman—-on a horse, silly!). The social mores of the time are old enough to feel quaint, but no so old as to make them incomprehensible to today’s reader. In short, Come Out of the Kitchen! offers all the ease without any of the compromise.
Almost the entire cast is laid out in the opening scene (and yes, it feels very much like a play, and in fact was made into one). It’s a modest cast. There’s the young real estate man, who’s pushing the main character, Burton Crane, into leasing a house for the hunting season. The house is a bit dilapidated, as the genteel family who own it sided with the South during the Civil War, and the consequence was that they lost the bulk of their fortune. Crane has already set his mind on the house, though, so he just waves aside its state of ill-repair.
But he does insist that the house be properly staffed. For the indoor staff, the real estate man already has some candidates lined up. Crane is ill-equipped to interview them—-he’s a man, so his experience with household affairs is limited—-but he’s brought a friend along, a Mrs. Falkener. Mrs. Falkener reminded me a lot of Lady Bracknell, from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: she’s a snob, dominates her daughter, and is often more than a little absurd.
Mrs. Falkener interviews each of the four prospective indoor staff—-a butler, a cook, a maid, and an errand boy. Of the four, she finds only the butler acceptable; he walks lightly, landing first on the balls of his feet, as a well-trained butler ought to do. But the maid has a bad attitude, and the errand boy is inclined to talking back. And the cook? Well, she seems docile and competent enough, but she’s much too young and much too pretty.
Crane brushes Mrs. Falkener’s concerns aside, as he’s already a bit smitten with the cook. So the staff is hired, and Crane moves into the house a few days later. He’s also bringing some friends to stay. There’s Mrs. Falkener, of course, along with her daughter, who’s being pushed at our eligible hero Crane. Crane’s lawyer, Tucker, also comes to stay, though Crane doesn’t really like the man.
Once everyone’s assembled in the house, things quickly start to go wrong. Tucker eavesdrops on the cook and witnesses her being kissed by an unknown gentleman, much against her will. The errand boy does prove impertinent. The maid may or may not have stolen a hat. The butler refuses to follow directions. Even the cook, though she makes delightful food, could be accused of not knowing her place.
There’s constant trouble up and downstairs, much of it instigated by Crane’s guests, who are determined to be proven right about the household staff not being suitable. Crane half-heartedly resolves each of these petty conflicts. The bulk of his thoughts focus on the cook. Several times each day he vacillates between wanting an excuse to go down to the kitchen, to wishing he never had to lay eyes on the cook again. Mrs. Falkener’s daughter is a perfectly suitable young woman, a person of his own social class…and yet, he can’t stop thinking about that pretty cook!
It’s a lot of fun, especially as things come to a boil. But it’s not just a fluffy read. Each of the characters has a surprising breadth of expression—they’re not just caricatures who provide a predictable laugh. The prose, moreover, is witty, insightful, and eloquent. I loved this passage in particular:
A great deal has been said about silence as a method of spiritual communion, but few of us, in social situations, at least, have the courage of these convictions. Most hostesses, on looking about a silent dinner-table, would be more apt to think that they were watching a suspension of diplomatic relations, rather than an intercommunication of souls. But there are moments for all of us when we value silence as highly as Maeterlinck himself and this, in Burton’s opinion, was one of them.
A few chapters later, when the petty squabbles reach a peak, I laughed out loud at Crane’s peacekeeping solution:
‘Talk, my dear fellow, talk at dinner. Do nothing but talk. Otherwise, I shall knock those two men’s heads together.’
‘I doubt if you’d get much sense into them even if you did,’ he murmured.
‘No,’ answered Burton, ‘but I should have a great deal of enjoyment in doing it.’
It’s an enjoyable, short read (one of those old books with very big margins), one I’d recommend if you like upstairs/downstairs kinds of stories and plots that spiral hilariously out of control. Time has tossed Come Out of the Kitchen! down the literary cracks into obscurity, but it’s definitely worthy of some new attention. And it’s in the public domain!