Mrs Frances Sarah Norwood first appears in The Clearwater Mysteries in chapter four of book four, Fallen Splendour. She and her husband, Isaac, are Clearwater’s retainers and have come to take care of the house while Archer and his men go to Larkspur for Christmas.
The second stranger swept into the room, and for a reason he couldn’t place, James was relieved. Mrs Norwood, only slightly younger than her husband, bustled in the manner of Mrs Baker, and, like her husband, exuded confidence, not only with how she greeted James but how she took to her surroundings.
‘We have met before,’ she announced with a smile, studying his face as she gave a curtsy.
James’ confusion deepened, but he half-bowed to her before saying, ‘We have?’
‘I thought it must be you when His Lordship said you were South Riverside,’ she continued, passing by and heading towards the kitchen. ‘I’ll pop on a pan and warm a pot.’
Later in the series, Mrs Norwood divorces her husband because he has been unfaithful, and she gains the position of permanent housekeeper at Clearwater House. She is one of the few major female characters in the series and is still with us when we reach the first of The Larkspur Mysteries in 1890. By then, things have changed at both houses. James and Silas are working as private investigators based in London, while Thomas and Archer spend more time at Larkspur. Mrs Norwood lives at the London house with ‘her boys’, as she calls them and their new assistant, Duncan Fairbairn.
Dalston Blaze, the talented young artist we meet in Guardians of the Poor drew Mrs Norwood as a gift for looking after him.
Today, sitting in the servants’ hall at Clearwater House with a pot of tea, I am asking the housekeeper a few questions.
Mrs Norwood, thank you for taking the time to talk with me. May I start by asking what exactly is expected of a housekeeper?
You may, and the answer is quite simple. I keep house. This involves looking after the day-to-day work of the female servants, balancing the household account books, meeting with the mistress to discuss meals, and ordering all supplies.
And is that what you do at Clearwater House?
No, not entirely. For a start, there is no mistress, so I deal directly with His Lordship when he is in town, otherwise, I run the house for the boys. I do the ordering and the cooking, except on Sunday mornings when they fend for themselves. When Lord Clearwater is here, he usually brings Mrs Roberts, his cook, and Mr Blackwood, my assistant. Together, Jasper and I clean the house and keep it tidy, while either Mr Nancarrow or Mr Holt act as the butler. It depends on who His Lordship has with him. He has a large and diverse staff, and we are all happy to do whatever is needed. But, most of the time these days, it is just me and the boys, and the house runs very much as a normal house would, except it is bigger.
How did you come to be Lord Clearwater’s housekeeper?
It came about thanks to Mr Payne, who was then His Lordship’s young butler. My ex-husband and I had been retainers under the previous viscount, and I have known His current Lordship since he was quite young. When the family was away, we would live downstairs at the house, partly to guard it, mainly to ensure it was kept running and clean. At this time, we lived in rented rooms not far away in South Riverside. My husband worked in publishing as an editor. I had a part-time position as a schoolmistress, and I also helped with Sunday school, which I still do.
After the business with Mr Norwood, when the divorce proceedings had begun, Mr Payne suggested it wouldn’t be proper for me to return to our lodgings, and thus, let me stay on at Clearwater House until things settled down. A little while later, he offered me the position of housekeeper, and His Lordship agreed because Mrs Baker was required at Larkspur, leaving the London House unkept. I have been running it ever since.
You and James Wright had met before you came to the house, is that correct?
Ah yes, little Jimmy Wright, the brightest boy in his class. I taught him when he was young, and he was a good student. A little dreamy at times, often suffered from bullying, I discovered later, poor thing, but good at his reading and writing. He used to be a chubby boy, a cherub with golden hair and near-invisible eyelashes. (She smiles fondly.) And now look at him. Gallivanting about the countryside, chasing down assassins and poisoners, rescuing young men from all manner of trouble… And now he wears a moustache. How they grow up.
You assist with the detective agency, I understand?
I look after ‘those boys,’ certainly. If I didn’t run around after them, I hate to think what a mess they would be in. I know Jimmy… Mr Wright is now nearing thirty years, and Mr Hawkins is over twenty-one, but honestly… Newspapers left lying around, the dishes poorly washed, towels on the bathroom floor… I even found Mr Wright’s revolver left casually on the servants’ hall table one morning and was forced to tell him off. But, I love the work, of course, as I have grown to love them, for all their faults. As for the detecting work, I have been known to solve a clue or a riddle now and then. Sometimes, you see, only a women’s brain will do.
Yes, you have something of a reputation for being a New Woman, as the newspapers would have it. May I remind you of the time Silas first saw you driving His Lordship’s trap?
‘Mrs Norwood?’ He greeted her, unsure whether to shake her hand or hand over his luggage. ‘What are you doing driving the trap?’
‘Hello, Mr Hawkins,’ the retainer replied, reaching for his portmanteau. ‘We got your telegram late yesterday evening, but Mr Norwood has to be at the publishing house today, so I thought I would come to collect you.’
‘But, you’re a…’
She had taken his bag and swung it into the back of the trap before he finished stating the obvious.
‘Yes, I know,’ she said. ‘And a woman who sees no reason why a lady can’t drive. Why, if I wasn’t teaching most other days, I might even take up being a cabbie. It’s quite thrilling.
Ah yes, the driving. Well, I am not the first woman to drive, and I shan’t be the last. Thanks to changes in archaic laws, women can be more emancipated these days, and so they should be. Last year, I taught myself to type on a new typewriting machine, and I am currently studying Pitman’s shorthand. It’s not such a far leap from there to Morse code, and I am nearly fluent in that too. These are small things. I intend to see what I can do about getting women the vote, but I do have to be careful not to upset His Lordship. Having said that, he, too, is in favour of women being given the vote, and I mean all women, not just a chosen few.
Does that mean you find the housework less of a challenge, or perhaps, dare I ask it, too much like ‘women’s work’?
Good Lord, no! Running the house, cooking and cleaning for the boys is a joy. As you know, Mr Norwood awarded me no children, so I can’t but help see the young gentlemen as, well, nephews at least. Lord Clearwater insists on a family-like atmosphere at his properties, even among the staff, and I suppose someone has to be the mother to the man now his own has passed away. I mean, he sees Jimmy Wright like a brother, Mr Andrej too, and we know how he is with Mr Hawkins, so it’s only right that I care for the gentlemen, but that doesn’t prevent me from bettering myself with what you might call more unusual pursuits. Morse code, Pitman, driving, and so on.
You alluded there to Mr Hawkins and His Lordship, and I think you will know what I mean when I ask how you feel about their relationship.
And what exactly do you ask about it?
Oh, well, how you feel knowing… knowing what it is.
Sir, of course, I know what it is, how it is, and why it is. A housekeeper should know everything that happens in her house, and I do. However, I am discreet, and His Lordship’s personal business is none of yours. Would you like more tea?
[Mrs Norwood is very protective about all of her ‘boys’, Lord Clearwater included.]
One last thing, Mrs Norwood. What do you think about Lord Clearwater’s new endeavour, the Larkspur Academy?
I am thrilled, of course. His Lordship is a philanthropist, and this latest venture is a wonderful idea. I don’t have much to do with it, being in London for most of the time, but some of the young men the academy seeks to help have visited here. In fact, most of them, including Professor Fleet, came from London and have spent a night or two here before travelling to Cornwall. Recently, Mr Blaze was a guest after being rescued, and it is he who made this wonderful portrait which now hangs on the wall there. His deaf friend, Mr Tanner, also stayed for a couple of nights. So, I do at least get to meet some of the talented and unusual men before they move down to Larkspur to better their lives and chances.
Understanding that he cannot help everyone, Lord Clearwater strives to better the lives of the underprivileged and those who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. To offer them—even if only a few—the chance to discover themselves, develop their hidden talents and make a life for themselves is a wonderful thing to do, and I look forward to visiting Larkspur and seeing the house for myself. I have been to the Hall, of course, I was there last Christmas, but I would like to see the academy in full swing. I have heard it is quite a unique place, a little like Clearwater House, and I look forward to the day it takes young women under its roof as well as young men.
Thank you for taking the time, Mrs Norwood. Would you have a quote for our readers? Something that sums up how you feel about the world under Queen Victoria and your part in it?
I do, actually, although it is by no great author or person of learning, but my own thought.
If a woman follows the crowd, she will see only what the crowd sees. A woman who walks alone, however, will find places no one has seen before.