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.