The Tudor guide to colonising the world: in case “Bluff King Hal”‘s old digs aren’t big enough for you, read about Richard Hakluyt’s sixteenth century travel guides of the New World. Mind, he never actually left Europe, so take with a grain of salt.
I don’t think I’d have lasted 24 hours in the Dee household without tearing my hair out.
Paging through his personal and spiritual diaries I catch glimpses of people who, while colorful, I’d never want to meet: Dee’s cranky alchemical apprentice; two maids who accidentally set fire to their room twice in one year; the manservant he fired for getting drunk and cursing out the rest of the staff. That’s just a sampling and while there’s no full list it seems Dee had at least nine servants and probably more during my 1583-9 time frame.
The Dees weren’t unusual. Almost everyone of middling rank or higher had live-in staff. If you didn’t have servants you’d likely be one because up to a quarter of the population was in service. And even if everyone was nice as pie there was never, ever a break from their company. Servants worked in all parts of the house and some slept on their masters’ bedchamber floors (dedicated servants’ dormitories were rare). Houses were often designed with linked rooms so even if your maid or man had a private bedchamber they probably passed through yours to get there. Decorative elements like wooden screens and bed curtains compensated for this lack of privacy, but only just.
In short it was damn near impossible to be truly alone*, a fact that makes my inner introvert blanch while my writer’s mind reels at the potential mayhem.
Pro: lovely opportunities to endanger my characters! Dee and Kelley were into so many questionable things that any sudden walk-ins could easily create panic and rumors of Dee’s “conjuring” that Jane would struggle to explain away. Hours of amusement!
Con: a massive narrative hurdle. I’ve got to get the servants out of the house for their infamous “crossmatching” incident, which the Dees and Kelleys swore to keep secret on pain of death. Dee’s spiritual diary offers no details beyond a terse “pactu factu” (pact fulfilled) so I have free rein, but how do I empty the house believably? Send everyone to a market fair (if there was one)? Hide in an unused wing (ditto)? Bribe everybody (though they’re poor)?
I’m almost done with the first draft (!) and am still unraveling this snarly plot knot.
*Even more so if you take children and visitors into account.
Cooper, Nicholas. Houses of the Gentry 1480-1680. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999.
Dee, John (author), Stephen Skinner (editor), and Meric Casaubon (Preface). Dr John Dee’s Spiritual Diaries (1583-1608): Being a reset and corrected edition of a True & Faithful Relation of what Passed for many Yeers between Dr John Dee…and Some Spirits. Woodbury MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2012.
Orlin, Lena Cowen. Elizabethan Households: An Anthology. Washington DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1996.