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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Amanda Craig

Top 10 books about cleaners

Lesley Manville in a scene from Mrs Harris Goes to Paris.
Lesley Manville in a scene from Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. Photograph: Liam Daniel/AP

Whether known as cleaners, charladies, housekeepers, janitors or maids, those who clean have recently been recast. Originally seen as either comical or sinister, they have become emblems of resilience, keeping chaos and Covid at bay. Next week, Paul Gallico’s enchanting comedy, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, opens as a film with Leslie Manville in the lead. It will shine a spotlight on a job that has moved from that of supporting character to hero.

Perhaps the first cleaner in English literature is Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, associating “sweep(ing) the dust behind the door” with blessing a house. Yet mess, whether domestic or political, has long been seen as work for the female or unskilled. To those who resent the imposition of domestic order, cleaners can be sinister and even vengeful presences – most famously depicted in Jean Genet’s play, The Maids. But to those who feel only relief at having their filth lifted by someone else, the cleaner is a bringer of joy.

Having worked as a cleaner myself during my 20s, I know that there is no other job both so crucial, so underpaid or so interesting to me as a novelist. A cleaner has the worm’s eye view of employers, not just in terms of cleanliness but because they are automatically presumed to be stupid or even subhuman. My own heroine in The Golden Rule is a graduate and an impoverished and abused single mother who gets suckered by a rich woman into a plot to murder each other’s husbands. She discovers a very different story as a result of cleaning her intended victim’s home.

1. Mrs Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico
Novels about cleaners are usually variants of Cinderella. In 1958, Mrs Harris works for “human pigs” in Belgravia, and longs for a Dior dress. When she wins the football pools, she goes to Paris to buy one. Being very much of its time, she is an innocent abroad but the charm of Gallico’s depiction of the doughty cockney going into battle with the snooty French is winning. Though Gallico was best-known for novels such as The Snow Goose, Mrs Harris became one of the author’s best-loved comic creations; she reappears in three subsequent books, even becoming an MP.

2. The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson
In the first adult novel by this supreme writer of romantic comedy, its aristocratic Russian exile, Anna, gets a job as a “tweeny” at the idyllic but crumbling home of the Earl of Westerholme. While wounded, he has been tricked into marriage to the beautiful, rich and appallingly eugenicist Muriel, but soon the earl and his cleaner fall in love. Its exquisitely funny portrait of class relations contains a core of white-hot rage about snobbery and antisemitism: Ibbotson herself was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.

3. The Maid by Nita Prose
Unlike the grim Netflix series of the same name, this is a joy. Larky, orphaned Molly is “the last person anyone invites to a party”. She adores her job as a cleaner in a swanky New York hotel but when she finds the body of a guest she is put in the frame for his murder and must turn detective. Molly makes us feel her pleasure in what is crisply starched, perfectly ordered and formally correct, but as a neurodivergent person in a dangerous city she also has a terrible inability to spot dishonesty.

4. The Promise by Damon Galgut
A darker relationship is depicted in this 2021 Booker prize-winning novel. The dying Ma promises the devoted Black maid Salome who nurses her that she will be given her own house and land in South Africa. Yet decade after decade, the promise is ignored by Ma’s selfish, greedy descendants. Though largely unseen and unheard, Salome represents the “invisible” Black people whose rights have been stolen during apartheid. Four decades on, when the promise is finally honoured, it’s too little, too late.

Viola Davis in the film version of The Help.
Viola Davis in the film version of The Help. Photograph: Dale Robinette

5. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
A young white graduate in 1960s Missisippi, Skeeter becomes intrigued by the lives of her friends’ Black maids. Her eyes are opened while investigating their conditions, and she gradually gains their trust when paying for information for writing a magazine column on how to clean and care for a household – something that she knows nothing about. Good-hearted and entertaining, the novel attempts to be even-handed in its portrait of a world that, like The Promise’s, is steeped in racism.

6. My Cleaner by Maggie Gee
Gee’s novel satirises the British version of racism and inequality in the liberal chattering classes. A white working mother, Vanessa has exploited her Ugandan cleaner. In London to do a degree for which she has insufficient funds, Mary has become very attached to Vanessa’s young son Justin. When he suffers a breakdown at 21, Vanessa must get Mary back from Kampala. A delightful character with an almost anthropological eye, Mary is offered twice the money to return, and the two women’s relationship must be renegotiated.

7. Clean by Michele Kirsch
Both harrowing and hilarious, this memoir tells of how, as an anxious student with a growing Valium dependency, the writer took on cleaning jobs in Boston to help make ends meet. It gave her a window on the life she hoped to acquire. Yet, when she gets this in 1980s London, she is the one making a mess of her home and family due to drug addiction. At 50 years old, clean and a cleaner again, living alone in a Hackney bedsit, Michele finds herself finishing her working life as she had begun, “in a dumb job that you do when you can’t really do anything else”.

8. A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
A collection of 43 short stories about women struggling with all kinds of jobs, from switchboard operators to nursing. The title story is one of the most brilliant in a brutal series of emotional X-rays as its nameless observer rides the bus from job to job, noting how “women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women or cats”. Highly autobiographical, these are gritty, funny and filled with detail that makes this an exceptional work of 1960s fiction.

9. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
In this searing classic of undercover reportage, the late journalist worked as cleaner after American federal welfare reform in 1998 pushed four million women into minimum-wage jobs. “You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high,” she says after observing how “nobody, no matter how lowly, is truly ‘unskilled’.” Her exposure of the dehumanising effects of this failed to shame corporate or middle-class employers, though she herself said she would never employ a cleaner.

10. The Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau
Célestine works in a Norman chateau. Her life, both comic and heartbreaking, debunks 19th-century French antisemitism, hypocrisy, greed and injustice. With no job security, exploited by her employers financially and sexually, the picture this book paints of her life as a minimum wage slave with no hope of improving her lot in life is timeless. “We don’t have time to be sick, we don’t have time to suffer … suffering is a master’s luxury,” she says. Mirbeau’s excoriating satire was adapted for the cinema by Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel, and it’s still as fresh as when he wrote it.

Amanda Craig’s eighth novel The Golden Rule was long-listed for the 2021 Women’s prize and is out in Abacus paperback. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

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