“Come Out of the Kitchen!” by Alice Duer Miller

This was another intriguing title ending in an exclamation mark, uncovered when I was perusing a list of books from 1917 for My Century of Books led me to a lovely little romantic comedy.
The story begins in the offices of Mr Randolph Reed, whose business was real estate. He had a mansion available for the summer that had never been let before. It was rather dilapidated – as his prospective client pointed out – but it was a house of such quality, and it offered a unique opportunity.

Mr Burton was a young man, both successful and charming, and he was eager to take the house. He was a rather perplexed by one condition of the lease – that he must accept the four staff put forward by the absent owners – but he went ahead. When interviewed the butler seemed a credit to his profession; the cook’s youth took him by surprise, but she was beautiful, she was charming, and her food was said to be divine; he was less taken with the maid who seemed a little sullen, or by the ‘useful boy’ who seemed rather bold, but he was sure that butler would keep them in line.

The house party was made up of Mr Crane, his lawyer, Mr Tucker, and Mrs Falkener, an old family friend, accompanied by her daughter, Miss Falkener. They loved the house, but they were taken aback by the staff. The butler’s manners were exquisite and, rather unusually, he would happily converse with the party on a wide range of topics with wonderful erudition. The food offered up by the cook was sublime, exceeding all expectations. But the maid was slovenly and the useful boy was rather presumptuous. The strangest thing though, was that the house seemed to belong to the servants rather than the guests.

Mr Crane and Miss Falkener were inclined to be entertained, but Mr Tucker and Mrs Falkener were inclined to be severe. After a number of wonderful incidents – including the escape of the cook’s cat, a rather pushy suitor and a dispute over a fashionable hat – three of the servants had been dismissed and the house party fell apart. Only the host and the cook were left, and that was most improper …

The story plays out beautifully, and is full of detail and incident. There’s a big twist, but it is the easiest of twists to guess – even if you miss the clear sign-posting in the first chapter – but I didn’t think that working it out spoiled the story. In fact it worked rather well, knowing that I knew something that the house guests didn’t.

It helped that I took to the characters, especially Mr Crane, who was thoughtful and kind, but no pushover, and Jane-Ellen, the cook, who was so capable and quick-witted, and able to explain and justify just about anything with charm and utter believability. I rather liked Miss Falkener, who had no intention of being steered in the direction her mother wanted, as well, and I was quite royally entertained by the staff.

Wonderful descriptions illuminated the characters, their world, and everything that happened. The only real weakness that bothered me was a little flatness in the dialogue; it was believable, but the story and the characters deserved a little sparkle.

I thought as I read that this was a story that could be dramatized to wonderful effect, and sure enough when I looked back to the title page I saw that it started life as a play, and when I did a little research I found that it had been filmed. All of that was many years ago and the play and the film have vanished into obscurity, but the book is still available, and it’s great fun.

11 responses

  1. This sounds lovely. I know the author from her poem The White Cliffs, which was made into a movie, The White Cliffs of Dover, with Irene Dunne in the 40s. Very appropriate for this Remembrance time of year as it’s about love & loss in the world wars.

  2. Oooh, sounds lovely Jane. I too only knew of Miller from The White Cliffs but sounds like she might another lost author!

  3. Oh dear, another intriguing book added to my wishlist – you’re oversupplying me this week, Jane! (note use of exclamation mark). Incidentally, the plot sounds a little like that charming Agatha Christie short story in The Listerdale Mystery collection, where there is a similar unlikely staffing situation.)

  4. Pingback: Sunday Caught My Interest | Reflections from the Hinterland

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