Not like it was in Mrs Danvers' day

They cook, they clean, they wait at table. And their reward is often abuse. Vicky Ward on housekeepers
The plot sounds like something by Daphne du Maurier. A large country house containing an elderly widow goes up in flames in the middle of the night; the housekeeper of six years is found dead. Another member of the household's staff is charged with murder. The employers come from one of Britain's leading aristocratic lines. Echoes of the infernal end of Mrs Danvers, fiction's most famous housekeeper.

Yet this is no fiction. Last week, a 58-year-old housekeeper, Marion Addy, died in just such circumstances. She worked for Elizabeth Touche, widow of George Touche, a former senior partner of the stalwart British accountancy firm Touche Ross. Her head had been bashed repeatedly and her rooms set on fire. A former nurse to Mr Touche was arrested and charged.

The story highlights the hidden hazards of the job of housekeeping. The sad case of Mrs Addy is not an isolated one.

In January 1995, Lucy Middleton, 64, died protecting her employer's farmhouse in Hampshire from burglary; in August, Maria Cerrato, 24, successfully sued her employer, Anna Nicole Smith, the model-actress of Naked Gun fame, for sexual abuse.

The modern housekeeper is more vulnerable to attack than her historical counterparts because she usually works alone.

According to Kate Parrish, who runs Domestic Solutions, an up-market domestic staff agency, the housekeeper's role has changed considerably. "Because of the recession, the job has expanded to include everything from cleaning, washing and ironing to cooking and child-minding," she says. In the old days, such as in the Forties, memorably portrayed by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the film The Remains of the Day, a housekeeper's job was supervisory. "Now," says Ms Parrish, "apart from the very rich, most people who want a live-in help cannot afford to have a large number of staff. They want somebody who can do everything.

"This is partly because employers are no longer just the elderly or the very rich. They are young working couples with children. The result is that for the first time there is a gap in the market. Staff are either cleaners or live-in delegators. Very few want to be live-in factotums."

Janet Williams, 49, is a former nurse who advertises herself in the Lady as a housekeeper/carer. She is single and uses her parents' home in the Sussex countryside as a base. She has been in service for 15 years, and has learnt the hard way that the job is too physically and emotionally demanding to hold one position for long.

"Two years is the average time anyone works in one job," she says. "I find it easier to work shifts in weeks, because you need more than one day a week off to recover. It is much better to be fresh and do three weeks on, three weeks off, rotating with a partner."

The most draining part of the job, Ms Williams says, is not the cooking, cleaning or shopping, but the unspecified task of acting as both emotional crutch and punchbag. "I once worked for an elderly married couple who advertised for a housekeeper but really wanted a shoulder to cry on. It was exhausting but happy. Yet after three years I suddenly heard them talking to each other disparagingly about the way I'd cooked the cauliflower. I think they said it almost to make conversation. But in our profession, employers always talk behind your back. You have to have a thick skin, but when the tittle-tattle starts in earnest, you know you must move on."

Ideal employers are as hard to find, it seems, as ideal staff. The Smiths (not their real name), a married couple in their forties who work together as housekeeper and gardener, have certain standards. They advertise themselves as available for work in three home counties only, and for families without young children. The money has to be better than average into the bargain.

"Our first post was with a lovely titled couple," says Mrs Smith, "but we left after five years because we weren't paid enough." According to Ms Parrish, the average wage for a live-in housekeeper ranges from pounds 180 to pounds 250 a week - more if the job is in London, but then the (free) accommodation is unpleasant.

"The second job was with a young family, and the nannies - seven of them - came and went in five years and undid all my work. No sooner had I cleaned up, than they cooked all over the kitchen or trailed soiled nappies over the floor. I found it heartbreaking." The Smiths are not concerned that they are now unemployed. Perhaps surprisingly, their options as a working couple are greater than those of an individual.

"I probably place more couples than individuals in a year," says Ms Parrish. "It has to do with cost. A top-rate housekeeper might cost pounds 300 a week, but a top-rate couple would only cost pounds 400 to pounds 450."

It is impossible to assess how many people in Britain are now coughing up such sums for their domestic staff, but Ms Parrish places 300 housekeepers a year. "The market is continually expanding," she says. "The aristocracy is no longer the exclusive employer of the housekeeper."

But, still, perhaps her best. The Smiths want to work for a lord and lady. "Quite simply," sniffs Mrs Smith, "the aristocracy are used to staff and know how to treat them well. The nouveau riche, on the other hand, just don't know how to behave."

Fortunately for the Smiths, a suitable vacancy has recently arisen. Dame Barbara Cartland, step-grandmother to the Princess of Wales, is seeking a replacement for her housekeeper, who is retiring at 84. An ideal post, except that prospective employees must share Dame Barbara's love of pink interiors and Pekineses.