The St .Zita Society by Ruth Rendell

Picking up a Ruth Rendell novel feels as though I am returning to an old friend. I know, more or less, what to expect, and I am delighted to be in this author’s company. Ruth Rendell seems to excel in creating fictional spaces, uniquely malignant cauldrons in which the fouler aspects of human behaviour breed and simmer before exploding into crime. In the novel Portobello, I had a niggling concern about snobbery through the delineation of the poor vs the rich characters with criminal behaviour landing solidly on the former, but Rendell has irrevocably swept that aside in The St. Zita Society, a psychological crime novel in which the servants and various hangers-on of the rich rub elbows with their employers in the upscale houses of Hexam Place. It’s in this unhealthy environment that violent death makes its appearance.  

The St. Zita Society (named after the patron saint of “domestic servants“) is formed by June Caldwell, the companion of the autocratic, petulant, self-invented woman who calls herself Her Serene Highness, the Princess Susan Hapsburg. The two women have lived together for sixty years, and June is HSH’s servant, companion, dog-walker, secretary and the recipient of all of her employer’s moods and temper tantrums. It’s very likely that this is the reason that June, now 78-years-old forms the society which holds its meetings at the local pub. Eligible for membership are the servants who work in the swanky addresses of Hexam Place, and June’s intention is that the St. Zita Society will give the servants some sort of clout, but in reality, the society is June’s attempt to make her own life more tolerable.

The servants include: cleaner Zinnia who splits her time at several homes, Dex the “criminally insane” and now certified cured, gardener-for-hire who believes that the voice in his cell phone gives him orders, Thea who rents a Hexam Place flat and is misused and underappreciated by her landlords, Henry, the chauffeur of Lord and Lady Studley, whose after hours duties include secretly servicing the very attractive and neglected Lady Dudley, Monserrat, the unpleasant au pair to the troubled Still family, Rabia, the Still’s Muslim nanny, and Jimmy the driver to Dr. Jefferson.

While June is intent on addressing “human rights,” there are other items on the St. Zita agenda–including dog feces left by those passing through the neighbourhood. Of course, since the servants are the ones cleaning up the dog poo, they are the ones who want the council to ‘do something.’ Meanwhile the homeowners are oblivious. This tiny subject of disgruntlement is the epitome of the division between the worlds of the wealthy and those they employ to make their lives run smoother. It’s an unhealthy relationship, even at the best of times, and we see some servants taking advantage of their employer’s good nature (Jimmy), and others taking advantage of their employer’s lack of interest (Monserrat). Of course, others are worked beyond reason, and June seems to be the most put-upon partly due to her age, her lack of choices and her tyrannical employer.

Monserrat comes from the same sort of privileged background as her employer, and she deeply resents her position as a servant for people she simultaneously envies and despises.  She’s facilitating her employer, Lucy Still’s affair and accepts ‘tips’ to keep her mouth shut about it.

Monserrat knew all about it. She made it her business to know who was having an affair with whom, who was skiving off, and who was borrowing a Beemer or a Jaguar when such a loan was strictly forbidden. She had never blackmailed anyone, but she liked to keep the possibility of a modified sort of blackmail in reserve. The only friend she had in Hexam Place was Thea, and the only member of the St. Zita Society who possessed a car of their own was herself, keeping her rather old VW in a garage in the mews that belonged to number seven.

It’s no coincidence that Thea is Monserrat’s only friend as Monserrat does not considers herself a servant and has little in common with the other employees of Hexam Place. Monserrat doesn’t slot easily into the servant-master dynamic; her father went to school with Lucy Still’s father and at one time, they were both wealthy men. Monserrat’s father lost all his money in “some banking scandal,” and Monserrat is given the job as the Still’s au pair as a favour to a friend. Monserrat is opportunistic and resentful and can’t help but notice that her employer, Lucy Still, has a relatively cushy life full of designer shopping, jogging, and an affair.  Thea isn’t a servant, but she is a doormat and she’s treated badly by her landlords. While she struggles against this role, she seems unable to alter it. Interestingly, these two characters, Thea and Monserrat, are connected by fate.

The St. Zita Society covers just a few months of the lives of those who live in Hexam Place–from Autumn to Spring. Marriages melt down, adultery runs rampant, and with a slow-building menace brewing, murder is the inevitable result.

Rendell argues that we know little about what goes on the house next door, and the book is a strong statement regarding the inherently unhealthy relationship between employer/master and servant. It’s a relationship that breeds familiarity, abuses and resentments on all sides. Some of the book’s scenes highlight the inherent fragility and hypocrisy of the relationships between the characters. A few visits from June’s famous soap opera nephew, Rad Sothern, sets Her Serene Highness reeling, and yet while HSH treats Rad coquettishly, like some ardent suitor, the Princess never shifts an inch in the treatment of Rad’s aunt, June, so some awkward evenings are spent with an unpleasant hierarchy between the three characters.

Ruth Rendell  is no stranger to the theme of the complex and difficult relationships between servants and those who employ them. A Judgement in Stone, considered one of this author’s finest psychological crime novels explores the twisted relationship between the affluent Cloverdale family and their psychotic housekeeper Eunice Parchment.

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11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Rendell, Ruth

11 responses to “The St .Zita Society by Ruth Rendell

  1. I went to a books shop last week and thought I should get another Ruth Rendell. I’ve never heard of this one before. What I didn’t get, is this a new book? I think I saw one that looked brand new at the book shop but i forgot the title by now. I’m sure though it wasn’t this one.

  2. Brian Joseph

    I have always had a fascination with the domestic servent and “served” type of relationship. Other then perhaps a little help cleaning or a few chores (not that I have ever hired anyone to do this) I cannot imagine employing serious domestic help. It just seems strangely wrong no matter how busy I became. It smacks me as a little narcissistic. I even feel odd when the maid comes to clean a hotel room that I am staying in. I do understand that there are people who are so busy that they need assistance but I think that in many cases such help is not employed in such situations. It would be interesting to read a mystery that delved into such issues.

    • Guy, which are your favorites? Mine are mostly older ones: THE BRIDESMAID, TREE OF HANDS, THE KILLING DOLL, A FATAL INVERSION, THE CROCODILE BIRD…..

      • I think The Tree of Hands is in a class all of its own. The Fatal Inversion was excellent–haven’t read the Crocodile Bird yet (just bought a copy). I like the Inspector Wexford novels but I prefer the stand-alones. With the older ones vs the newer, now we are getting into the issue of Late Style per Edward Said. The characters in the latest novels seem less EVIL in a way, I would say.

    • Brian: my grandparents were servants, and I visited them at one of the vast homes at which they were employed. Not exactly Upstairs, Downstairs as by this time, servants assumed multiple roles, so my grandmother was cook/housekeeper and my grandfather was butler/chauffeur/gardener.

      I remember seeing some strange interactions and noted them even though I was very young: for example, my grandmother being told to throw away an entire meal and cook another as the menu had been changed. This wasn’t done in a spirit of meanness but a simple change of heart. It didn’t go down that way though.

      This is probably why I feel very uncomfortable with the notion of having cleaners in one’s home. I had a workmate whose son would throw food wrappers on the floor as the cleaner was due to arrive that day and that “was her job.” Everyone in the family seemed to think that was reasonable.

  3. prisr

    Sent from my iPad

  4. As a kid one of my friends’ family had a cleaner who came in each week. Before each visit his mother would clean up frantically, so the cleaner would not tell other employers that her house was dirty. I’ve encountered that with others since too.

    The other oddity I’ve encountered is people who think their staff are friends, but of course they’re not. I’ve known people who thought the cleaner “almost one of the family”, which is a damn big almost, and who would chat away as if the cleaner had just called round rather than being engaged in what was quite simply their job.

    I’m not of course opposed to being friendly, and workplaces where people get on are much better than where they don’t, but I think it was more than that. It was a fiction of equality born of a discomfort with the transaction at hand. You’re not friends, it’s not a social call, they have to be nice if they want to keep their job.

    It does seem to me a problematic relationship (I’ve paid cleaners in the past, but not presently). Not so much if someone comes in once or twice a week to do some cleaning, that’s not uncommon where both adults work and have a decent income, but having someone actually serve you day in day out, doing things you’re perfectly competent to do yourself, is odder.

    It’s a big attraction incidentally for some of the expat lifestyle. Whenever colleagues have moved to Singapore the opportunity to have a large staff and live a colonial lifestyle tends to be a major draw. I find it uncomfortable, but then I come from those more likely to be serving than served so perhaps I would.

    • I remember seeing a film (can’t remember the title) in which the ‘mistress’ and the her maid are going through clothing the wealthy woman no longer wants. The two women are laughing and having a good time when the maid offers an opinion, and immediately the social roles shift back into the old hierarchy.

      The difficulty of the roles between employers and the servants is one of the themes here: how do you keep people at arm’s length wheh they know all your secrets? How can mutual respect be maintained when orders are given and expected to be obeyed?

      I know several people who’ve moved to S. America in order to cash in on the availability cheap domestic servants. Weird.

  5. I don’t consider my cleaning lady or the nanny as domestics. They have jobs in the service industry and they happen to do it at my home. That’s it, we’re not friends, they’re not servants. I wouldn’t want to have an au pair or a live-in (is that the right word?) housekeeper. I like my privacy. I don’t have a 9 to 5 job and honestly, I have something else to do with my free time than clean the house. (some loathe cooking, I loathe cleaning) However, I’ve had to tell the children that having someone cleaning the house for us doesn’t mean that they can be slobs. It doesn’t come naturally.

    But back to the book. I agree with you about the interest of employer-servant relationships. When I read classics, I always wonder what it was to be a living furniture, hear and see lots of things because people don’t hide, don’t consider you as a person and talk and act as if you weren’t in the room.

    • Yes that is the correct term: live-in housekeeper.

      There are two characters in the book who move between the houses but don’t live in. One knows all the gossip in the houses. I think Rendell nails the difficulties these relationships are fraught with.

      I think how children handle cleaning ladies and/or domestic servants is a matter of interest. How does it fit into their world as its a fairly complex idea and the social relationship isn’t easy.

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