Risky Regencies

Silliest servant blunders

Actually, I’m not talking about the mistake of taking on a career tightening Prinny’s corset, though I think this poor fellow deserves combat pay for his efforts.

I’m talking about the more egregious mistakes regarding servants I’ve seen once in a while in Regency-set romances.

This past weekend I listened to a children’s song by Tom Chapin in which a royal footman sang in an imitation Cockney accent. But what I can deal with in a children’s song I find harder to take in a historical romance. I have read stories in which a butler or valet spoke Cockney and I have to admit that grates. It’s as if the author felt it was necessary to clarify the differences in social status.

Yet some authors make the opposite error. In one book I read a scene where the hero, on returning home, warmly and publicly greets a man on the stairs using his first name. For a moment I thought there was a brother or good friend the author hadn’t mentioned before. It turned out to be the butler. It didn’t ruin the book for me but it did confuse me for a scene.

Yet I think this is something that is easily researched or even just absorbed through enough reading in the period. It’s not hard to learn the names and roles of various servants. Maybe the relationship between them and their masters is a bit more of a subtle thing. The way I understand it, servants often took their tone from the households they served. In a respectable household, the servants who dealt most closely with the family members (and as you can see some of them had to deal quite closely!) and also those who dealt with guests were expected to be respectable and well-spoken themselves. Of course, in a more ramshackle household the servants could run amok, too. It’s all part of the characterization.

Georgette Heyer wrote some of the strongest servant characters in her novels, like the domineering old Nurse in VENETIA, or Keighley, the groom in SYLVESTER. I don’t think I’ve read a romance in which a servant had a romantic role but I’ve read a few in which the heroes or heroines pretended to be a servant. Probably my favorite of those is Loretta Chase’s THE SANDALWOOD PRINCESS.

So what are some of your favorite servant (or pretending to be) characters? Do you like it when an author plays with class differences in a romance? Are there errors in depiction of servants that grate on you?


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Kalen Hughes
15 years ago

Keighley. I’ve always loved him. And the tiger in REGENCY BUCK. I can’t remember his name off the top of my head . . .

I hate it when the servants are portrayed like close friends. When the heroine is just oh-so-concerned about her maid’s feelings, etc. I think as Americans we’re just uncomfortable with the IDEA of servants. With class and station having real meaning. One of the things I loved about Gosford Park was that it portrayed the stations in an accurate manner (though not Regency, I think the way the upper and lower orders interacted was more accurate than most books I’ve read).

Janet Mullany
15 years ago

My favorite servant blunder is the housemaid opening the front door to visitors (a footman’s job) and wearing a Victorian uniform. I’m fascinated by servants, because they knew everything that went on in the household and they weren’t always faithful and discreet.

I have a ms. with a footman hero tho I did cop out and make him the heir to an earldom (something that was discovered quite late in the book after all the, uh, trouble). I know there were real life cases of women who married well out of their social sphere but I can’t help but wonder what it was like for them, isolated from their families and friends. I also invented a somewhat nasty clause in her late husband’s will that made marrying a servant very tricky for her.
Generally I’d say the people downstairs were much more interesting than the aristos upstairs.

Megan Frampton
15 years ago

I always like the governess stories, esp. the ones that make the inbetween status an issue in the story–IOW, that only the butler and the housekeeper were equal to the governess, but usually she was a lady, but she wasn’t part of things, and so had this weird side role to the running of the house.

I don’t like the stories where the servants and the gentry are close friends, like Kalen says. And I love Gosford Park, both upstairs and downstairs characters.

Keira Soleore
15 years ago

To me The Remains of the Day, the book by Ishiguro as well as the film characterization by Anthony Hopkins, remains as the example of what an exemplary butler is.

I agree with you. That uncomfortable American “let’s all be friends, there’s no class system” leads to some weird historical bloopers.

I love Gosford Park. What a cast! Oh, what a cast! Maggie Smith was splendid there.

I’ve seen housekeepers open doors, because apparently the butler was busy elsewhere. No clue what happened to the footmen. And this was by no means a small country home, but a Mayfair townhouse.

Cara King
15 years ago

There are a few things that I don’t much care for:

1. When a bachelor’s single manservant (e.g. Jeeves) is obsessively called a “butler” and the book assumes his main job is answering the door.

2. Similarly, pretty much any part where the butler’s main duty involves answering the door. (He’s the butler = bottler = handles the wine etc etc etc.)

Though I think my pet peeve regarding servants is thinking that a household could run on very little labor.

The most egregious example of this I ever read was from long ago before most Regencies even pretended to historical accuracy… Heroine gets a flat in London, lives there alone, gets a job, and in the evenings apparently makes her own dinner and cleans her own dishes (in her tiny flat). And yes, this was a Regency!


Elena Greene
15 years ago

Janet, that sounds like an interesting story although I understand the need for the reversal at the end. Still some women might be perfectly happy severing ties with family, depends on the family…

Megan, I like governess stories too, though I’ve never come up with an idea original enough to write one myself.

Re the friendship issue, I think some people did form friendships with their servants, especially if they were together for a while. But the friendships would have been affected by the master/servant relationship and not as demonstrative as we usually are with friends now.

I think the friendship would have manifested in more subtle ways: maybe the master or mistress being more considerate of the servant’s well-being, the servant being discreet and loyal above the normal call of duty.

Now that I think about it, a good example is the relationship Damerel has with his valet in VENETIA.

15 years ago

I realize it might not be the norm, but I rather like it when servants are called by their first names instead of Cook or their a little bit more like family. But like Kalen said, it’s probably because I’m not used to the idea of servants, and that’s what I would be doing.

But I love it when the hero (at least those are the ones I remember) are titled, yet masquerading as servants. I have no idea why I love them, however. LOL 🙂 But it would take me too long to try to look up the titles of the ones I read, but I know the Sandalwood Princess isn’t one. LOL 🙂 But I probably like it because I haven’t come across it to death. I only seem to be able to think of a handful or so. But I still wouldn’t mind reading a few more. 😉


Kalen Hughes
15 years ago

I totally agree, Elena, esp about the man in Venetia or the servant in The Masqueraders. Loyalty and affection for (and from) an old family retainer I get. What I don’t get are the books where the maid is the BFF of the heroine. And I do wonder in a lot of books if the houses are magical, like the bewitched castle in Beauty and the Beast. LOL!

As an example of great servants, I have to mention Pam Rosenthal’s recent book The Slightest Provocation. I loved the secondary romance there, and didn’t find it egregious that the heroine (a very forward thinking young woman) showed concern for her maid’s feelings for her mother-in-law’s footman. And I liked that the servants solution was a real one, something they did for themselves, not solved by a handout from the hero.

Amanda McCabe
15 years ago

LOL on the “enchanted castle,” Kalen! 🙂

When I was a kid, my parents had videos of all the “Upstairs Downstairs” episodes, and I loved this wonderful show! It was Edwardian rather than Regency, but it really helped me to get a grasp on class relations and how a household ran before I even started reading romances. I think it’s a fascinating topic, thanks for posting about it, Elena!

A few years ago I read a Victorian-set romance where the heroine was a princess hiding out as a housemaid in the hero’s house. She wore her Worth gowns to pretend to do the dusting, dropped things repeatedly, and bossed the other servants (even the housekeeper and butler!) around. And no one appeared to find this odd.

Tracy Grant
15 years ago

I think this is one of the trickiest things about writing in the Regency era (or Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, etc…). Yes, too much modern familiarity can throw historical accuracy out the window. Yet people are poeple, in whatever era, of whatever class, and a complete lack of any human connection to people who were such an important part of one’s life isn’t very sympathetic. I always loved the relationship between Damerel and his valet Marsden in “Venetia”. They’re friends–I’m not sure either of them would use the word, but they plainly like and respect in each other without ever behaving in a way that shakes the period feel of the book. I tried to do a similar sort of relationship between one my heroes and his valet (affection veiled in tradition and formality) while the hero’s wife, who isn’t an aristocrat (and in fact has decidedly anti-aristocratic views), has a much more informal relationship her maid. When no one else is around, the maid will call the heroine “Melanie”, while the valet would never dream of calling the hero “Charles”.

Kalen Hughes
15 years ago

She wore her Worth gowns to pretend to do the dusting, dropped things repeatedly, and bossed the other servants (even the housekeeper and butler!) around. And no one appeared to find this odd.

No one but the readers who I imagine were nashing their teeth and tossing the book agaist the wall!

Jane George
15 years ago

Judd and Prudy in the early Poldark books are a hoot. But Cornwall’s a bit uncouth, which is why I’m currently mucking about in that territory.

I do like the tension that can be added by the constant possibility of being overheard by servants.

Kalen’s magic castle remark got me to thinking about Harry Potter, House Elves, and SPEW!

Amanda McCabe
15 years ago

“nashing teeth and tossing the book against the wall”–that about sums up my reaction. 🙂 But the reaction of the characters in that book all seemed to be “Oh, isn’t she just adorable! Don’t we all just love her!”


Elena Greene
15 years ago

That Victorian romance sounds insane, Amanda! But I’m sure it found a certain readership anyway.

I too find the “magic castle” funny. I can understand why it sometimes comes about, though, because it can be difficult to get the hero/heroine alone. But it’s a copout to just pretend the servants don’t exist. IMHO you either have to figure out how to deal with their presence or find plausible ways to get them out of the way.

15 years ago

Keira wrote:

To me The Remains of the Day, the book by Ishiguro as well as the film characterization by Anthony Hopkins, remains as the example of what an exemplary butler is.

The Remains of the Day is one of my very favorite books, and one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of story being driven by character. (Also one of the best examples ever of a theme being woven into a story with subtlety and finesse.) I liked the movie all right, but I thought it was not completely successful, partly (IMHO) because the film makers were scared that the audience wouldn’t “get it,” and made the characters spell out their own motivations; when the point in the book was that the characters didn’t really understand their own motivations.

I recently read a book called Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders, of which a large part was about the role of servants and how much labor was involved in keeping even a modestly-sized home clean and neat. Heating with fireplaces and lighting with candles (or later gas) put an enormous amount of soot into the air, requiring constant dusting; cooking without modern stoves and ovens; keeping plates and utensils clean (and rust-free before stainless steel); washing laundry without modern detergents, let alone washing machines. Reading the book made me feel very, very tired. I doubt things had changed all that much since the Regency.


Janet Mullany
15 years ago

In a fit of blatant self-promotion, I’m presenting a workshop on servants at the Beau Monde Conference this year.

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