Editing Internet Texts/Servants in literature

Introduction edit

Mariage à la Mode by Hogarth, servants stand alongside their masters
The Governess by Richard Redgrave
Marian Hubbard Daisy Bell and Elsie May Bell with governess
Household staff of Curraghmore House, Portlaw, Co. Waterford., circa 1905
The butler (centr-left) and the rest of servant staff at the Stonehouse Hill of Massachusetts, the estate of Frederick Lothrop Ames, 1914.
La Toilette by Raimundo Madrazo
Memorial to a housekeeper Maria Home
Rules To Be Observed by Housekeeper at Gogerddan
Vermeer - Lady Maidservant Holding Letter
Scullery Maid
Eugene Allen, famous American butler, with Reagans. Allen worked for the US White House for 34 years. His life was inspiration for a film The Butler, produced in 2013.

As Voltaire wrote, "The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor" and this quote can be associated with domestic servants who worked for their masters in Britain. [1]

In this project, on the basis of literary works such as Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, some of Agatha Christie's novels and Longbourn by Jo Baker several figures of servants in Britain from the nineteenth century to the twentieth century are presented. Their role has changed a lot over this period of time and so called “below the stairs” gradually “climbed up” and became more visible.

The project is based on: Servants' Voice Growing "Audible". [2]

The aim of the project is to show how the depiction of servants in literature changed over time and to present how the topic of domestic servitude is popular nowadays and to draw the reader's to lives of those "below stairs".

Servants' pyramid edit

British system of domestic servitude was connected with the British class system. It mirrored the social hierarchy. Moreover, a network of master-servant relationships is connected with the power of the king over his subject and also with the power that the family head has among family members[3]. Moreover, the English word "family" derives from the Latin "familia" - that word was originally used to describe a group of servants working for the same employer.[4].

When it comes to the early 19th century British servants, they were rather invisible in a great house. As Judith Terry writes, "No servant could either sing, whistle, or talk loud, in the hearing of any of his master's family, nor make any other noise about the house (...). A servant should neither blow his nose or spit in his master's presence; and, if possible, neither sneeze nor cough"[5].

On the whole, there was some kind of hierarchy among servants. The most important was the male butler, who supervised the other servants. He belonged to the Upper Servants Staff. The female housekeeper was at the top together with him. The Lower Staff included both female domestic helpers, like: cook, head nurse, nursery maids, housemaids, laundry maid, scullery maid, kitchen maid, dairy maid and scullion and on the male side there were footmen, grooms, a valet and a coachman. There were other servants, the outside staff, such as steward, gamekeeper or gardener[6]. Later on, in the early 20th century with the development of industry a chauffeur appeared. A governess had a special position in Victorian times. She was neither a member of the aristocratic, upper-class family nor a servant. She was mainly responsible for teaching children.

Servants' quarters
A domestic servant was responsible for the management in a great house. Servants lived in servants' quarters. In smaller houses servants lived in the basements or attics, so in the "margins" of the house. Their place in the house mirrored their social status.

Depiction of servants in selected literature edit

A brief description of "invisible servants" edit

In 1851 there were about a million of domestic servants in Britain[7]. In their book, Brown and Burdett compare the Victorian servants to ghosts and “supernatural phenomena” because a servant at home seemed to be invisible, unheard and a part of the house[8]. As we learn further, servants “haunted” many areas of the Victorian house, they appeared without any voice: “The domestic servant suggested a silent estate of discontent and dis-ease cohabiting the same physical space as the family, but imagined by that family as immaterial and invisible”.

Wuthering Heights edit

Relationships between masters and domestic servants are masterfully depicted in Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights. Ellen Dean, called by everyone "Nelly" is a housekeeper. The story is written mainly from her point of view. We get to know all the characters of the novel through Nelly's eyes. She is a witness of two families' life and the conflict between them. At the first glimpse she seems to be only a minor person in the plot. She is compared to a wall, as she was a witness to many events. She is still a servant, with various duties and almost no time for herself. Some characters treat her as an object, like Catherine, who orders Nelly: “Take yourself and your dusters off; when company are in the house, servants don't commence scouring and cleaning in the room where they are!” [9]. Moreover, her narrative is "filtered through the middle-class Mr. Lockwood"[10], who writes the whole story in his diary. It is Lockwood who decides what to write in his diary. So he has the final say in the novel. When it comes to Nelly, she works at home and in the grounds; and her duty is raising children. Some characters ask her for advice in many circumstances. What is worth saying is that she influences their decisions by giving them a piece of advice. Lockwood also noticed her knowledge and the fact that she read lots of books. He observed and told her: “I am sure you have thought a great deal more than the generality of servants think” [11], and this statement makes us notice that Ellen Dean was ahead of her time to some degree.

See also : Wuthering Heights Adaptations

To the Lighthouse edit

Woolf, the author of To the Lighthouse wrote in one of her essays that "on or about December, 1910, human character changed (...) all human relations have shifted". [12] That shift was connected with relationships among masters and servants. Wollf herself had a domestic servant, Nellie Boxall.

"To the Lighthouse" gives us an intriguing image of servants. The book consists of three parts. In the first section we get to know the characters: the Ramsey family and their friends. The plot is focused mainly on relations between (upper)middle-class people. The last section is similar to the first one. In the second part, however, the atmosphere is ghost-like. There is no focus on people from the first section. The focus is on nature - the rain, the dark govern the house and also the hard work of domestic servants is shown. Mrs. McNab and another female servant take care of the house suffering from disorder and decay. The working force stops the force of nature that took over the house. It is shown that without servants' hand the household would be devastated. The reader has a chance to notice the drudgery of domestic servants. "How long, she asked, creaking and groaning on her knees under the bed, dusting the boards, how long shall it endure?"[13] - those Mrs. McNab's questions help us imagine what a servant might have felt.

The idea of Woolf in her book is groundbreaking. She draws the reader's attention to servants and pulls them out from being silent and invisible.

See also: To the Lighthouse Adaptations

The Remains of the Day edit

The book gives us an insight into a butler's work and the dying days of servitude in Britain. It is vital to add that Darlington Hall was the image of the English society itself. The hierarchy of the class system was one of the characteristics of Englishness and relations between masters and servants were similar to those described in the book. As we learn from Adam Parkes, "just as Darlington Hall is the property of Lord Darlington, much of England as a whole remains in the hands of a feudal aristocracy".[14]

Mr. Stevens, the head butler of Darlington Hall is the narrator of the story. Evolution in the portrayal of servants in literature can be clearly seen here. Previously, the servant did not occupy almost the whole book and did not have such significant role in it. Stevens has the main voice in the novel, he is the narrator. Stevens tried as much as he could to be the perfect butler. Dignity was the most important for him. He gave up his own love and hapiness because he was focused on his work. As the story develops, he realizes that the desire to be "great" at all costs are no longer important, because servitude starst to collapse. Together with the decline of aristocracy, the role of servants changed. The shift is illustrated in the book by an American taking over the former British house. In the beginning of the 20th century British aristocracy started to decline. "As the Edwardian era drew to a close, the long political and cultural hegemony of the aristocracy began its final descent. For those who had lived under its wings, it seemed impossible that it could ever end", as we learn from Lethbridge. [15]

See also: The Remains of the Day Adaptations

Agatha Christie's novels edit

In her detective fiction, especially Golden Age detective novels in the period when many great houses had their domestic helpers, the writer included servants in the plot. Servants were presented mainly in the background. They were invisible but at the same time important in the plot because they were witnesses to many events, they overheard a lot and saw what other people did not. Servants in Agatha Christie's novels represent the working class. They are shown as rather naive, childish, honest and devoted to their employers, for instance in the novel Three Blind Mice from the collection of stories Three Blind Mice and Other Stories. On the other hand, we can easily notice a change in their depiction, especially in her later novels. In the Endless Night we come across smart working class criminals or intelligent representants of the working class, like in the Death in the Clouds. The shift in the representation of servants was probably connected with the social changes. The number of domestic workers decreased because they were offered new job opportunities, for instance working in factories, which was a better job for the working class because of shorter working time and higher wages. As we learn from Tylor, the decrease of servants was visible - "Households which had kept five servants dropped to two; those formerly with two to one; and the rest of the middle class made do with a daily woman."[16] In Agatha Christie's book The Mysterious Affair at Styles it is the servant who participates a crime.

Longbourn edit

Jo Baker decided to rewrite Jane Austen's famous novel of manners Pride and Prejudice and wrote her book Longbourn in 2014. The evolution of servants' representation is clearly visible when we compare those two books. Baker focuses on the life downstairs with domestic workers' concerns and draws the reader's attention to the unpleasant chores and serving the better off. While in Austen's novel servants only fill the background and often their masters are arrogant towards them, the 2014 book is written in the domestic helpers' point of view. The novel illustrates the class difference and makes the reader aware of the fact that someone must have spent a lot of time and devote personal life in order to work for the middle or upper class.

Moreover, in Longbourn class system is represented from a modern times perspective, and there are many rebellious thoughts in it, for instance one character, Sarah, reflects that “no one should have to deal with another person’s dirty linen”[17]. What is worth underlining, we can see an evolution in presenting servants and interest in their lives. They seem to escape from the background and are placed at the centre of the novel. Baker’s idea to write such a book helps us appreciate those who served their “betters”. The quote from Longbourn:

"The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber floor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures that they really were"[18]

shows the reader that despite the fact that the Bennet daughters have a higher class position than domestic servants, they are not better and perhaps could not manage without their help. The most important thing for Bennet daughters is to be beautiful and clean, but they are not clean in fact, as evidenced by their laundry. What is more, they are lazy and it is disgusting that they leave dirty and embarrassing items to be taken and cleaned by members of the lower class.

Servants' memoirs edit

The hard work of servants had not been appreciated for a long time until the second half of the twentieth century, when the decline of household staff cooccurred with the increasing interest in first-person accounts of servants' lives. People began to demand such highy personal memoirs which give voice to all those who experienced service in great houses. Such books are interesting because servants, melted into the background, usually knew all the secrets of the house full of intrigue and scandal. Thanks to such memoirs we can get to know how the life looked like at the times of domestic servitude.

  • Lucy Lethbridge wrote a book Servants. A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times in 2013. The book includes various stories connected with domestic servitude.
  • Thanks to a book by Kate Hubbard, Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household published in 2012, we can have a look what serving the Queen Victoria looked like.
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett tells about three female black servants working for white families.
  • The Kitchen House by Kathleem Grissom serves us a story of a maid, an illegitimate master's daughter. The action is set in 18th century Virginia.
  • Manor House: Life in an Edwardian Country House by Julie Gardiner is a companion book to the TV series titled the same name, chronicles a groundbreaking experiment. Modern people try to live in an Edwardian household both as the masters and servants. On the basis of authentic diaries and photos they try to recreate the life in a great house in the same way as it was in the past.

Further reading edit

Tasks for the reader edit

I Quiz


What was the name of Virginia Woolf's servant



How many parts are there in To the Lighthouse?



What was the name of the famous butler who served for the White House for 34 years?



What was the name of a fictional butler in The Remains of the Day?



How are personal accounts of servants called?



Who was originally the author of the book rewritten by Jo Baker as Longbourn?


II What servants would you find in a great house?

III Think about another representation of domestic servants in literature. Write a short summary of how the servant was depicted in the book.

References edit

  1. Lethbridge, Lucy. Servants. A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. 2013. New York: W.W. Norton&Company, Inc.
  2. Fielek, Edyta. Servants' Voice Growing "Audible", Representation of the Evolution of British Servants from the Victorian Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century in Selected Literary Works. Kraków. 2016. Manuscript by owner.
  3. Terry, Judith. 1988. “Seen But Not Heard: Servants in Jane Austen’s England”, A Publication of the Jane Austen Society of North America Department of English, University of Victoria, Victoria, B.C., (104-116), <http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number10/terry.htm> (accessed 10 June 2017)
  4. Sarti, Rafaella. 2005 (but 2006), Who are Servants? Defining Domestic Service in Western Europe (16th - 21th Centuries), in S. Pasleau and I. Schopp (eds.), with R. Sarti, "Proceedings of the Servant Project", 5 vols., vol. 2, Liege, Editions de l'Université de Liège, 3-59.
  5. Terry, Judith. 1988. “Seen But Not Heard: Servants in Jane Austen’s England”, A Publication of the Jane Austen Society of North America Department of English, University of Victoria, Victoria, B.C., (104-116), <http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number10/terry.htm> (accessed 10 June 2017)
  6. http://www.waynesthisandthat.com/servantwages.htm
  7. May, Trevor. 2007. The Victorian Domestic Servant. London: Shire Publications Ltd.
  8. Bown, Nicola, Burdett Carolyn. 2004. The Victorian Supernatural. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Brontë, Emily. 1994. Wuthering Heights. London: Penguin Group. p.71
  10. Peak, Anna. 2014. Servants and the Victorian Sensational Novel in ESL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  11. Brontë, Emily. 1994. Wuthering Heights. London: Penguin Group. p.65
  12. Hoffman, Michael J. and Patrick D. Murphy. 1996, "Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown by Virginia Woolf'", Eds. Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. 2nd Ed. Durham. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1996.
  13. Woolf, Virginia. 1992. To the Lighthouse.London: Penguin Group.
  14. Parkes, Adam. 2001. Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day: A Reader's Gudie. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group.
  15. Lethbridge, Lucy. 2013. Servants. A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. New York: W.W. Norton&Company, Inc.
  16. Tylor, A. J. P. 2001. English History 1914-1945. London: Oxford University Press.
  17. Magalit, Ruth. 2013. “Life Downstairs”, The New Yorker 31 December, <http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/life-downstairs> (accessed 10 June 2017)
  18. Elkin, Lauren. 2013. What Austen Didn’t Write in “Pride and Prejudice”. <http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/10/09/what-jane-austen-didn-t-write-in-pride-and-prejudice.html> (accessed 10 June 2017)