Thanks to Naomi for the idea for today’s post. She wrote to us:
I have been reading a fabulous book by Alison Light who wrote about Virginia Woolf and her complex relationship with her servants (Mrs Woolf and the Servants). Virginia Woolf in her fiction and diaries thought and fumed about her difficulties with servants. She couldn’t live with them and she couldn’t do her work without them. If we assume that our beloved ‘historical romance’ heroines are reflective of our own idea of desired qualities then often they are written as being firm but fair employers, efficient and amiable house managers, and who often have some retainer or ex-nanny who is fiercely loyal and loved by her mistress and who loves her mistress like a daughter/mother/friend etc. These stereotypes are rather revealing in our own prejudice towards humane treatment of all regardless of their social standing, yet given how essential it was for the aristocracy to be seen to have servants to do the cleaning, cooking, heavy work, and the relative separation of the classes, exactly how much of the idea of good will between the classes is wishful thinking. I wonder if this is a line of enquiry that would be interesting to pursue for your readers?
Oh goodness, yes.
The truth was that for the Bloomsbury crowd, particularly after the first world war, their servants didn’t really want to be in the profession and had options elsewhere. Being a servant no longer had the prestige or the benefits of former times. And that’s exactly what the position was with servants/employers from the late eighteenth century through the Regency.
The Georgian servant population was mostly young (early 20s), transient, and planning and saving to get out of service. Visitors from abroad as well as employers complained bitterly about English servants’ rudeness, laziness, and greed.
Yet at the same time there was a fashion in the late eighteenth century for employers to commission portraits of servants–out of nostalgia for the “good old days,” maybe? There was a terrific exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London a few years ago that brought together many of these portraits, and the book of the exhibit is well worth having–many great illustrations and thoughtful essays.
Most of the portraits were painted by local artists (unless of course the servant was background for a portrait of the family) and many of them have a “primitive” quality to them. Here are a couple of some of the most famous of the genre from Erddig, one of the most popular National Trust properties in England because of its servant history.
To me, one of the most striking things about these portraits is that the servants don’t look happy. Maybe they were ill at ease. The estate carpenter in particular looks as though he wants the artist to just go away so he can get on with his work. The Yorkes, the masters of Erddig, regarded their servants with great affection, wrote some rather bad poetry about them, and created at least one sinecure position, cobweb duster, for an elderly employee.
One major clue about master-servant relations in the Regency-Georgian period is the appearance in print of warnings to servants not to ape their betters, to behave respectfully, and to dress appropriately–and that suggests that servants needed this advice. This is rather ironic since for many positions, including those of lady’s maid and valet, one of the “perks” of the position was the employer’s discarded clothes.
Would you want this saucy minx washing your undies? Quite honestly, she looks like a real trouble-maker.
Back to Naomi’s letter. Which writers can you think of who show “realistic” relationships between servants and their employers? And if you’re a writer, how do you portray servants?
If you’d like to see the Riskies write about a specific topic, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We always like to hear from you!