Saturday, 8 December 2012

"Four New Aprons and a Box of Bonbons" : what to give a servant at Christmas?

What was Christmas like for servants in the past? Did employers show festive goodwill to their employees and did they celebrate together? Or did family festivities simply mean more work for 'the help'?

We can start to  think about Christmas  from the servant's perspective by thinking about gift exchanges. In the 1900's employers differed greatly in their attitudes towards gift-giving. For many, Christmas was an opportunity to provide their staff with necessities like aprons, or materials to sew new uniforms for the coming year. For instance, one woman who worked as a scullery maid in the inter-war years recalls her mistress giving her the material to make a new apron:
I was told "The lady is coming down to give you her Christmas gift." I said, "That'll be nice." So down she comes with these parcels, brown paper and string. She said, "Good morning." I said, "Good morning, my lady." She said, "I wish you a Happy Christmas." "I wish you the same, my lady." So she said, "This is for you." It was material to make an overall. That horrible, I couldn't believe it. What an insult. (1)
In what sense is a new uniform a 'gift'? Well, on the one hand, servants usually paid for their own uniforms so receiving them at Christmas did at least save the expense. On the other hand, how might you feel if your boss handed you a gift-wrapped ink cartridge or mouse mat? In other words, is such a 'gift' really just a different form of wage? Such a question might not matter in an environment where work is clearly distinguished as such, but a live-in servant spending Christmas away from her own family might have keenly felt the need for a more personal connection with her employer.

Some employers, however, did tried to move away from such pragmatic 'gifts'. In the Christmas 1906 edition of the Ladies' Home Journal, Frances A. Kellor reminds readers that:
The holiday season is the time of all others when the helper is prone to have a sense of separateness or to feel that she is not a real part of the household, but a mere spectator of joys in which she has no share whatever. The resulting feeling of loneliness is particularly trying and difficult to endure in the holiday atmosphere of anothers home. (2)
Christmas should also be an opportunity, Keller says, to "make the helper feel that her employer's home is hers."

Ladies' Home Journal, Christmas edition 1906

In response, her readers recall gifts they have given their servants. Some respondents merge utilitarian concerns while treating their staff; one reader explains how she gave her maid "four new aprons and a box of bonbons", while another explains how she gives her "helpers" money, but makes the  gesture seem more "Christmassy" by putting the money "inside a tiny purse or a pretty handkerchief" so that it is distinguished from "monthly wages".

Other employers go further. A "woman of wide experience in domestic matters" states that the woman "who selects a purely utilitarian gift for her helper makes a grave mistake ... something in the nature of a little luxury is much more acceptable." A good number of these women employ servants from outside America and so give gifts which tie in with native traditions, such as  "Scotch heather" and "German Christmas confections". This reader's moving story similarly speaks of the geographical displacements involved in domestic work:
Our helpers are two sisters, and we naturally came to know their family. We found there two brothers and five sisters alone in America and we wanted to help them keep together. Christmas seemed a good time. For two years we gave them a dinner and use of the parlour floor for the evening. But on the third Christmas when we arranged a 'cobweb party' the hearty handshake we got afterward gave us a key to future entertaining. Another pretty occasion was when we helped them to arrange a Christmas such as they have in their own country.
From the scullery maid's mistress who happily presented her employee with a new apron, to the Ladies' Home Journal respondents who go to great lengths to make sure their staff feel at home during the Christmas period, there were clearly a variety of gift-giving practices across the twentieth century. What this variety suggests is the unique position of the domestic worker, who can understand herself and be understood as a  family member, as an employee or as a strange mixture of both positions.

(1) Quoted in Jane L. Hegstrom, "Reminiscences of Below Stairs: English Female Domestic Servants Between the Two World  Wars," Women's Studies 36 (2007), 15-33, 27.
(2) Frances A. Kellor, "The Housewife at Christmas," Ladies' Home Journal 24 (December 1906). Accessed online via URL< > (17/12/2012).

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Medieval Cooks and Food Illusions

I'm enjoying the BBC's 'Food, Glorious Food' season and as usual I have my eye out for servants. Clarissa Dickson-Wright's program shows that the medieval nobility and gentry demanded meals which were both filling and entertaining. Cooks created 'illusion foods', dishes which confounded diners' expectations. For instance meat-free 'hasteletes' were crafted from dried fruits - hasteletes were usually entrails. Yum. Below, Heston Blumenthal similarly creates 'meat fuit' by making plums out of a bull's ... er ... plums.

Even more spectacular examples of theatrical food abounded. Blackbirds baked in a pie? Small fry to Philip the Good whose chef encased a  live orchestra in a giant pastry shell at the Feast of the Pheasant. As Nicola McDonald explains, lords who commissioned such displays weren't just trying to demonstrate their hospitable natures and their largesse. Hosts who presented their guests with roast peacocks returned to their feathered skins, or rigged up cooked fowl to jump around in their dishes, showed that they had "power to conjure life itself and, by implication, death." (1)

Contemporary depiction of Philip the Good's feast (1454)

But what do these culinary shows tell us about the cooks who prepared them? Well, clearly these servants must have been highly skilled artists, but they also catered for their households' day-to-day necessities in hot, noisy and smelly kitchens. Successful cooks must have been skilled in directing staff, the many underlings who helped cook and prepare food. Furthermore, McDonald points out that lords expected their cooks to be knowledgeable in medical matters since they prepared the foods and drinks which would increase or purge their lords' humours. Indeed, beginner cooks trained for several years; cooks belonged to guilds and so worked as apprentices and journeymen before setting up their own shops or joining households as servants.

But despite their years of training and medical knowledge, their  application of elbow grease and artistic finesse, cooks suffered from an "image problem" in the Middle Ages. (2) Chefs in literature were often portrayed as drunken, stupid and bad-tempered. Melitta Weiss Adamson has speculated that educated elites looked disdainfully on chefs because they catered to the body, rather than the spirit. Chaucer's apprentice cook in his unfinished 'Cook's Tale', for instance, although an amiable fellow, is sacked because of his drinking and gambling.

So next time you watch Heston's  ice-cream pork pies or 'meat fruit', spare a thought for the unacknowledged culinary artists of the Middle Ages.

(1) Nicola McDonald, "Eating People and the Alimentary Logic of Richard Coeur de Lion," in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance, ed. Nicola McDonald (Manchester University Press, 2004), 124-150.

(2) Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Greenwood Press, 2004).

Friday, 9 November 2012

Playing Maria


Maria in Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's wiliest and most interesting servants. This year the Globe theatre staged an all-male production of Twelfth Night and Paul Chahidi played Maria (pictured above). Click play above and you can listen to him discuss the challenges of playing a female servant, and his interpretation of Maria - courtesy of the Globe website. Do visit for more fantastic resources.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

"If you Want to Belch, be Mindful to Look at the Ceiling": Walter Map's Unruly Servants

Serving the table in the Lutrell Psalter (c. 1320)

Medieval conduct books are full of advice for children starting out as servants. Unlike the advice found in early modern household manuals, the instructions are often practical to the point of absurdity. Daniel of Beccles, in his Urbanus Magnus  or The Civilised Man (c.1200), offers these sage guidelines:

-          “Spoons which are used for eating do not become your property”
-          “If you want to belch, be mindful to look at the ceiling”
-          “Do not hunt for fleas on your arms or bosom in front of the  patron”

(Translations found here ).

Such behavioural guides “flourished in courts and elite households” from the thirteenth century onwards “as manuscripts were passed among family members and new books were composed and conveyed through the generations” (1).  Reading them, we might image medieval servants as belching, flea-ridden, badly-behaved infants. But the advice is designed to transform these ragged infants into well-mannered courtiers and to turn dinner-times into synchronised routines. Harmonious and disciplined households would surely follow.

This transformation did not occur, however, in the household of poor Walter Map. Map, supposedly of Welsh origins, was a courtier for Henry II, and he describes his home life in his De Nugis Curialium or Trifles of Courtiers. In this text his naughty servants run rings around him, eating and drinking their fill and working together to undermine their employer. Map laments his own inefficiency; he cannot “hold the reins” of his “little team” and “[i]f I bring a just charge against any of them, he denies it and finds others to back him” (2).

A downtrodden Walter then goes on to narrate an instance of particularly bad behaviour which “was really hard on me”. His servants, he explains, were fond of spreading rumours about him and making him believe that they and the locals disliked him. One nasty rumour accused him of being “stingy”, so his servants devise a plan which, they say, will prove his generosity.  His servants began to:

go into the streets and lanes and say I had sent them to compel travellers to come in. The servants in the house received the guests with the greatest respect, said that I was most anxious to see them, and hoped they would come often. Then they would run into me and announce that guests had arrived, men of good position, and made me welcome them in.

Of course, this impromptu welcoming of strange ‘guests’ had nothing to do with  making Walter look good, but was instead a means of making “meat and drink fly”  in the guise of hospitality. The wily servants then “gorged themselves to any extent in my presence” which, Walter adds “they knew I hated” – somewhat proving his servant’s point about his stinginess.

Now, we have no means of knowing how much this was true and De Nugis is full of scurrilous court gossip. But either way, Map’s image of the unruly household opposes the kind of world conduct books tried to cultivate. Map’s servants are not deferential, orderly and moderate in their customs and habits. They run around stuffing themselves with food, inviting people into the home with no thought for material or personal safety. In fact – unlike Walter – they sound like a hoot.

(1). Roberta L. Kreuger, "Teach your Children Well: Medieval Conduct Guides for Youths," in Medieval Conduct Literature: An Anthology of Vernacular Guides to Behaviour for Youths, with English Translations, ed. Mark D. Johnston (U. of Toronto Press, 2009), ix-xxxi. ix.

(2) Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, ed. and trans. M.R.James (OUP, 1983).

Sunday, 22 July 2012

"But Sir...You've Never Made Breakfast Before": Alfred Pennyworth and The Dark Knight Rises

It's been a while since I last  posted but if anything was going to snap me out of a blogging stupor it was Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. I was totally unprepared for how much  I would enjoy this film. Despite living with a man whose comic book obsession means our spare room is populated by replicas of superheroes organised according to affiliation and rank, I'm not big on superhero films and 'action' scenes usually bore me silly. The Dark Knight Rises, however, is a different matter. I'm not the first to say that the scenes of Gothman residents spraying champagne onto snowy streets out of the windows of repossessed manor houses give the film a fascinating socialist tinge. The evil leader of the "reckoning" is eventually defeated, but not before he necessarily exposes rotten, hypocritical and decadent actions and motives amongst the Gotham elite.

At the start of the film, Selina Kyle makes her entrance as a maid serving up shrimp balls to Gotham's self-satisfied patrons while Bruce Wayne stays holed up in his mansion, padding around in his silk dressing gown. Set eight years after the tragic events of The Dark Knight, it's no wonder that Wayne feels a little sorry for himself. But Selina has no sympathy for his luxuriant reliance on servants to serve his meals, answer his door and make his bed. After stealing his mother's pearls and wearing them to another society fundraiser she warns Bruce that he'll soon regret thinking he could "live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."

The most prominent servant in the film is of course the Batman's batman, Alfred. Alfred doesn't share Selina's sense of social injustice. He is there to support the Wayne empire, not to help topple it. But then again he is not just a prop; he is Wayne's business partner, even a surrogate father. And he's not afraid to stand up to his employer. Just after Alfred tells Bruce to buck up his ideas and stop feeling sorry for himself, for instance, he alludes to the fact that Wayne - a man so self-reliant that he can physically mend his own broken back - has never actually learnt to make his own bed. Sure enough, the next morning Bruce wakes up to the doorbell ringing and calls feebly for Alfred like an indolent teenager shouting for his mum. My title is taken from this comic strip, Gotham Adventures #60, where a similar exchange occurs:

Nonetheless, I couldn't help but want more from Alfred. I never got a sense from the film of the things he must necessarily have given up to support Bruce, even though he  has no family of his own, no possessions, no home and no partner. We might expect a flash of anger from Alfred faced with Wayne's thanklessness, not just Michael Caine's teary-eyed regret. You might argue, as a friend of mine did in the pub afterwards, that Alfred hasn't really lost anything because he's gained a family in the Waynes. But if Alfred is a father figure to Bruce, he's a strange one. I mean, what kind of father still makes his adult son's bed every day?

The ambiguity of Alfred's position is brought out nicely at times in the comics. In Superman/Batman #2 Superman struggles to make sense of the fact that Alfred is both paid employee and something more to Batman; that his work is both a paid task and an act of care (picture courtesy of my aforementioned comic book-loving partner):

Does Nolan's story encompass this kind of complexity? I'm not sure it does. It does remain, however, an almost perfect film.

P.S: For an excellent take on the history of Batman films do visit my good friend, The Magnificent Tramp.

Monday, 4 June 2012

How should Artists Depict Servants?

The Laing art gallery is currently running an exhibition exploring depictions of the family in British art and I went along hoping to see how servants fitted into these depictions  (you can see some examples on their Flikr). Sadly, I found only one example included. Plentiful paintings of servants do exist throughout the ages, as proven by a recent (ish) National Portrait Gallery exhibition. Sometimes artists treat servants as luxury objects like jewellery and sometimes they commemorated  servants' loyalty to their employers. Such paintings were often patronising caricatures, but they nonetheless acknowledged  the people who fed children, cooked meals, maintained households and sustained families.

So I was saddened not to see more servants at the Laing, but I was pleased to encounter Bill Brandt's work for the first time. Brandt's photographs juxtaposed "the formal spotless caps and aprons of parlour maids and aprons" with "images of deprivation within poor working-class households" (1). The Laing's selection, for instance, contrasts a very young child stood alone in a dingy, dirty alleyway with two bored and anxious looking housemaids attending to their employers' dinner table. In one image, an absence of care (both state and parental), in the other, a surfeit.

But is Brandt's attempt to portray British class divisions effective? Lucy Delap suggests not. Delap argues that in twentieth-century Britain, 'Great house' service was compulsively 'over-represented', despite 'being highly unrepresentative' of most servant's experiences (2). We have heard these arguments previously on this blog with regards to shows like Downton Abbey. In short, we must ask: Where are all the depictions of working-class servants, or servants in middle and working-class homes? By focusing solely on maids and servants in Great houses, Brandt arguably overlooks the existence of the numerous but culturally invisible working-class servants.

But, I want to ask, could this apparent oversight actually be the point? We are used to seeing servants in Great houses on TV and in films. Brandt's photographs continue this trend, yes, but he portrays these houses as fantastical, almost surreal worlds. The maids' outfits look ridiculous - impractical and stifling and their  their thoughts are clearly elsewhere. Brandt shows that the familiar pop culture image of the thriving Great house full of bustling, committed servants is a fantasy usually dreamt up by employers rather than employees, masters rather than servants.

(1): Lucy Delap, Knowing Their  Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford University Press: 2011).
(2): Ibid.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Servants, Homelessness and Guy de Maupassant

Tolstoy famously described Guy de Maupassant’s working class characters as “half-animals” moved “only by sensuality, malice, and greed.” As he went on to admit, however, Maupassant was even less complimentary in his depiction of the middle classes and his short stories were composed almost entirely of middle-class scandals and deceits, ranging from murder to incest.  

His short story “Rose” is typically salacious. It begins with stability and comfort; in picturesque and temperate Cannes a pair of women enjoy the ‘festival of flowers’ an annual procession in which wealthy young men and women flung roses at each other from horse-drawn carriages. The women are physically fixed in place, submerged beneath “a dazzling, perfumed bed” of flowers (1).

This picture starts sliding out of place, however, when one of the women lets her gaze fall “on the two gleaming buttons on the coachman’s back.” Her companion, Margot, launches into a tale about a previous “personal maid” named Rose: “within a month, I was practically in love with her … I’d never had a servant like her. She used to dress me in no time and with such astonishing lightness of touch! ... After a while, I became extremely lazy, so much did I love this tall shy girl to dress me from top to toe, from undergarments to gloves … When I used to get out of the bath, there she would be, waiting to rub me down and give me a massage while I sometimes dozed off on a divan.”

Margot’s intimate story is already undermined by the events that precede it. Cannes may have been a prosperous, luxurious city but its domestic services were largely performed by outsiders who provoked anxieties and fears. As Sarah Maza explains, servants “provoked the same suspicions as other migrants in a society fearful of anonymity and individual mobility” (2). Margot, like many nineteenth-century employers in urban France tries to reduce of a stranger in her home by scrupulously researching Rose’s backstory. She recounts that Rose’s references “were written in English, since apparently her last appointment had been in the household of Lady Rymwell where she had been employed for ten years. The reference confirmed that this young lady was leaving of her own accord since she now wanted to come back and live in France. Throughout the long period of her employment … she had given absolute satisfaction.”

Margot’s best efforts to control her household, however, are not enough. One morning a policeman visits and insists on questioning her domestic staff. She gives thorough accounts of all of them: “This is the concierge, Pierre Courtin, an ex-military man … This is my coachman, François Pingau, also from the Champagne, son of one of my father’s tenant farmers.” When she calls Rose into the room, however, her oversight becomes clear: “This girl,” the commissioner explains, “is in fact a man. He is called Jean-Nicolas Lecapet. He was sentenced in 1879 for murder preceded by rape … Four months ago he escaped and we have been searching for him ever since.”

Putting to one side, if possible, the sexual and gender politics here, it’s clear that Maupassant is concerned with issues of mobility. Martine Gantrel has shown that in nineteenth-century French novels “instead of conjuring up images of domestic coziness, [the servant] somewhat paradoxically, becomes … an unusual locus of female homelessness” (3). Take for instance this account by Célestine, the chambermaid of Mirbeau’s Le Journal d’une femme de chambre:

Today I have entered a new place. This is the twelfth one in two years … Judging  from the really extraordinary and dizzy way I have roamed around, from houses to  employment agencies and from employment agencies to houses, from the Bois de  Boulonge to the Bastille, from the Observatory to Montmatre, from the Ternes to the  Gobelins, everywhere, without ever succeeding in establishing myself anywhere.
 Maupassant may seem to confirm middle-class fears about migrant and foreign servants but his story is typically ambiguous. The female protagonists are lazy, pampered and petulant and Margot's friend's response to the story is mysterious rather than censorious: “She was looking fixedly and with the enigmatic smile women sometimes wear at the two gleaming livery buttons directly before her eyes.” In Western Europe and North America today paid domestic services are typically carried out by women who have left their home countries in order to provide for their families. Yet tales like Maupassants’ suggest that“new” domestic service is “less new than one might imagine” (3). The story of domestic service continues to be one of movement and dislocation.
(1) Guy de Maupassant, A Parisian Affair and Other Short Stories, ed. and trans. Sîan Miles (Penguin, 2004).
(2) Quoted in Martine Gantrel, "Homeless Women: Maidservants in Fiction," in Home and its Dislocations in Nineteenth-Century France, ed. Suzanne Nash (State University of New York press, 1993).
(3) Ibid.
(4)Rafaella Sarti, “The Globalisation of Domestic Service-An Historical Perspective,” in Migration and Domestic Work, ed. Helma Lutz (Ashgate, 2008).

Monday, 30 April 2012

The Groom of the Stool

I frequently ask on this blog whether we can and should look to history to understand modern forms of servitude and whether we lose sight of the  uniqueness of the past by insisting on its modern relevance. Well nothing reminds me of the distance between the modern and the early modern worlds more than the fact that the Tudor kings employed a servant specifically to – I’ll phrase this delicately – wipe their royal posteriors. This servant was hilariously named the ‘Groom of the Stool’ (sadly ‘stool’ meant ‘toilet’ at this point but the modern term for a bowel movement did evolve from here) and he had an influential and powerful role. Obviously the Groom was granted access to the most intimate moments of the monarch’s life but during Henry VIII's reign he also assumed responsibility for important administrative tasks.

Before he became infamous for bullying overweight schoolchildren David Starkey produced some superb analyses of this role. Starkey explains how Henry VII transformed the traditional great Chamber – the room in which “the king slept; ate most of his meals, and conducted most of his private business” – into a series of smaller rooms (1). The smallest and most personal of these was the Privy Chamber. Henry staffed this study-come-bedroom with a handful of trusted subordinates and forbade them to work in any other room. As Starkey puts it, the “firmly closed door of the apartment protected the king physically from the court nobility and so morally from the constant, insidious pressure they could ordinarily bring to bear.”  He might have hired a servant to wipe his backside but Henry longed for privacy and in the Privy Chamber he could relax and study accompanied only by his most trusted servants.

His son, however, renovated the function of the Privy chamber and its staff. The young Henry VIII, always glad of companions, swelled the staff of the chamber and entrusted them with ever more magnificent duties. These servants acted as emissaries between Henry and foreign and domestic magnates and monarchs.

So what might the existence and status of this role tell us, if anything, about servitude in early modern England? On the one hand, Starkey points out that although the Groom “had (to our eyes) the most menial tasks” his standing was, under Henry VIII, “the highest… entirely honourable, without a trace of the demeaning or the humiliating.” Although we may find it difficult to accept, early moderns did not necessarily consider servitude – whether royal or domestic –  to be demeaning. What's more, subordinate positions could have intensely powerful effects.  Then again, as Orlando Patterson points out, the Groom held no real power of his own. He was accepted by others only as a symbolic stand-in for the king, not as an agent who acted independently. As such, his legal position was strikingly similar to that of a slave (2). If such individuals enjoyed elevated statuses this was only because they were symbolically incorporated within the bodies of their masters. Powerful effects do not always require empowered individuals.
1. David Starkey, “Intimacy and Innovation: the rise of the Privy Chamber, 1547-1558” in The English Court, ed. David Starkey (Longman, 1987).
2. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Harvard University Press, 1985).

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Serving Shakespeare

Today’s post will be more personal than usual, and less servant orientated. On the 448th anniversary of his death, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust asked followers to discuss how they have been influenced by him (their answers can be found here). This is my  belated response.
My Nana didn’t read much but she kept a small collection of classics in her spare bedroom including the King James Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, and a collection of ‘real life’ alien encounters.  As a kid I would lie in bed at night devouring FBI reports of men vanishing into thin air and searching out morbid Shakespearean passages. Both disturbed and thrilled me because both suggested distant, violent, alien worlds.
When I went to college and university Shakespeare became less strange. I got comfortable with the rhythm, language, themes and historical context of his works.  My familiarity grew until one morning in July 2008 I sat in an interview for a PhD studentship and explained to the panel that I wanted to study Renaissance literature because that was where modern patterns of thought began, not because it reminded me of a “world we have lost”.
It’s now almost four years later and I am less certain about Shakespeare and how I want to relate to him.  After finishing my thesis and  loosing my moorings a bit I’m asking myself questions I thought I knew the answers to, including the most basic: what does early modern literature (and literature in general) mean to me anyway?
The feelings I had back in my nana’s spare room are returning. Shakespeare’s plays often seem like strange beasts  again now that I don’t have much time to tackle and dissect them. But  at the same time I believe in what I said in my interview. For perhaps the first time in four years I’ve allowed myself to properly wade through non-early modern stuff; to look, especially, at the way we represent servants today, and I’ve found many unexpected similarities.
This blog will hopefully help me sort out some answers to these questions. But however my feelings and my circumstances might fluctuate, however much I might change my mind about what I’m looking for, I still spend most of my time thinking and writing about the man.  

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Another Earth

On Sunday night I was reminded that stories about domestic service can be found in unexpected places. Paid domestic work is strangely central to Mike Cahill's Another Earth, the story of a young woman called Rhoda and her journey towards redemption after she drunkenly crashes her car, kills a mother and child and bereaves a father.

Cleaning obviously acts as symbol for redemption in this film. Rhoda cleans furiously at the same time as the mysterious second Earth advances bringing with it the the possibility that a nicer, unsullied version of herself exists on the duplicate planet. But the act of cleaning is not only symbolic. Rhoda starts working without a written contract and only the skimpiest of verbal agreements. Her working conditions and hours are not monitored by the agency that she claims to work for. She proceeds nervously around the house, unsure about what she can and cannot touch, until the physical closeness with her employer tips over into emotional and eventually sexual contact. None of this strikes the viewer as strange because we accept that domestic work in real life is unregulated, informal and often emotionally fraught.

Perhaps even more interesting than Rhoda, however, is her ancient janitorial colleague Purdeep. Purdeep appears in only six scenes in the film and, like so many on-screen servants, is largely silent. One day, however, Rhoda turns up at work to discover that Purdeep has been hospitalised after pouring bleach into his eyes and ears. He did it, his replacement explains, because he couldn't bear to look at, or hear himself any longer.

Reviewers of the film have noted that Purdeep, like Rhoda, seems to be chasing absolution for some undisclosed sin in his past life. When Rhoda visits him in the hospital she appears to confirm this by tracing the word 'forgive' onto his palm. But the viewer is not given any clue as to what his crime could be. Perhaps, then, we should seek other explanations. Purdeep has spent his life cleaning up after others - perhaps his 'sin' is nothing more than a perceived inability to rise beyond the conditions life has granted him. After all, as Rhoda's employer says, 'nobody enjoys cleaning'.

This beautiful post on the film puts it best:

In humanity’s eternal war against entropy it’s cleaners, underpaid and ignored, who are the frontline troops, tidying up our mess, putting things straight and making it so we can live another day... Purdeep leaves you wondering, makes you worry, like that grain of dirt that escapes the sweeper’s broom, that bit of entropy that always gets away.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Adventures in Local History

First, a disclaimer: I am not a good historian. I can talk about themes and culture and cultural themes, but I'm unsure how to operate a microfilm reader and I couldn't tell a parish record from my elbow. As part of my general research, however, I've started surveying texts written by and about servants in local archives and libraries in Newcastle (this has also to do with my involvement in the Popular Politics Project).

One text which has both intrigued and frustrated me is a slim volume entitled 'Tim Thrifty's Letter to his Fellow Servants', housed in Newcastle central library. It was published in Alnwick by 'J.Graham' in 1817. is apparently a letter from a senior servant upon his retirement warning fellow servants against vices like gluttony, disobedience and prodigality.

In many ways the letter is unremarkable. 'Tim' supports the hierarchical 'rank of life'. He admonishes female servants who give birth out of wedlock, servants who spend their small wages on frivolous pleasures like 'fairings', and those who have the cheek to question their lowly positions in life. Moralizing sermons like these are as common as far back as the sixteenth century, although they were usually written by preachers and the like at that time.

In fact, because the text is in many ways so rigidly conservative I can't help but wonder whether a servant really wrote it at all. 'Tim' names his master as 'Sir Stephen Allworthy' but I haven't (yet) found any record of a Sir Allworthy in Alnwick in the early 1900's. 'Allworthy' has an allegorical ring to it, like 'Tim Thrifty' and it strikes me that if an author in the 1820's wanted to induce conservative moral or social reform, publishing under the guise of a servant lecturing his fellow servants might be a clever way of doing so.

Yet 'Tim' also breaks away from moralizing at several points to reflect on more personal matters. In these moments he shows himself to be more than a mindless tool of the upper classes. He explains, for example, that he has saved his wages and can now support his nephew in beginning a trade, an advantage which will enable his nephew to 'settle in a higher walk of life than those who immediately preceded him'. 'Tim' then begins a lengthy note on the benefits of 'savings banks', a recent advantage which will allow servants and labourers to gain interest on their 'small sums'. Elsewhere 'Tim' encourages servants to advance themselves by learning to read and write.

As somebody who writes about literature, my instinct is to start linking this text with broader social and cultural movements, but I'm equally interested in working out who this 'Tim Thrifty' really was. And there are a few tantalising clues. On the first page, a handwritten note states that the text was 'probably written by...' Annoyingly, the handwriting is difficult to decipher, but a quick online search brought up a similar note in another Alnwick text by the same publisher. This note states that the text was 'probably written by J. S. Esq'. If I can assume that both notes refer to the same author then Tim Thrifty may not prove so elusive after all....

So, question for this week: what have you found to be the pleasures and pitfalls of studying local history? And, more pressingly, can I take a camera into an archive?! After four A4 pages of frantic handwriting I needed a stiff drink.

Sunday, 1 April 2012


I wanted to write a post about early modern drama this week, but whenever I sit down to write about servants in a particular time period servants from other times and places gatecrash my thoughts. A butler in a Renaissance play reminds me of the butler I saw in a film last week, who reminds me of the butler in that novel I loved, and so on. As Bruce Robbins puts it in his magisterial work The Servant's Hand: Fiction From Below, talking about servants can sometimes feel like "a stroll down an endless gallery of look-alikes" (Columbia University Press, 1996).

When rummaging through a second hand bookshop this week I had a similar feeling. By chance I picked up an anthology of work by Plautus, a Roman dramatist whose plays teem with clever, scheming slaves. I remembered that early modern dramatists were heavily influenced by Plautus, and another Roman dramatist Terence, when depicting servants and slaves. Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, for instance, reworks Plautus' Menaechmi (there is obviously something to be said here about differences between depictions of servants and slaves, but that's another post).

Plautus and Terence's plays are fresh and engaging even for modern readers. Their slaves make metatheatrical asides and gesture to the hypocrisy of their worlds. But their plays are actually translations and reinterpretations of Greek New Comedy not straightforward critiques of Roman life. Just like Shakespeare, Plautus and Terence recycled and reinterpreted stock servant characters rather than inventing new ones which might more accurately reflect the realities of their transformed societies.

As I mentioned in a previous post, tv shows today are still accused of recycling worn-out, stale stereotypes of servants. But throughout history, obviously recycled characters do remind us of a simple and important fact: literature (or tv, or film) is never simply a mirror through which we can see servitude clearly and in a neutral light. In the same way, a servant - or especially a slave - cannot simply determine her own status because her identity is, to an extent, already decided for her. And so I will continue welcoming gatecrashers.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Why servants?

Why devote a blog to depictions of domestic service? Isn’t modern domestic service just like any other kind of work? In the UK we don’t tend to employ unmarried, live-in butlers any more and so surely we have cleansed ourselves of the emotional and class-based difficulties of domestic service? Like the rest of us, nannies, maids, cleaners and au pairs sell their services in a depersonalized labour market. When the Guardian recently published this article popular comments included: "If one person wants to do [a job], and another person wants to pay them to do it, why wring your hands?"

But domestic workers today are still bound by expectations and regulations which do not apply to other workers. Just a few weeks ago the government announced that migrant domestic workers would no longer have the right to change employers once they enter the UK. This means that if a worker is abused or overworked she will have to stay with her employer or risk deportation.

Similarly, employers do not need to pay domestic servants the National minimum wage if they can prove that they treat their workers as ‘part of the family’ (this usually means giving them meals or allowing them their own bedrooms). Notably, servants do not have to agree to have their wages docked. The employer, not the worker, gets to decide whether he is exempt from normal labour laws, and he also gets to define the nature of ‘family’.

These factors indicate that there are continuities and discontinuities between the history of domestic work and the story today. On the one hand, domestic workers today are often migrant females, the result of globalisation.On the other hand, domestic workers continue to occupy a unique and precarious space, treated as both manual labourers and members of the extended family. The London-based charity Kalayaan, which campaigns on behalf of migrant domestic workers, states that “implying that women leave their own families for anything less than a fair wage is an insult.” A Philippine interviewee, Anna, agrees:

"Childcare is work. It's a big sacrifice. You don't experience your own children growing up. I remember when I went home I made my daughter fried eggs – I didn't know she only ever ate boiled eggs. I am their mother, but I am a stranger."

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Downton Abbey: Cultural Necrophilia?

Downton Abbey has proved immensely popular with everyone but historians. Simon Schama condemned the series as an exercise in "cultural necrophilia", serving up a "silvered tureen of snobbery", while Jennifer Newby accused it of hiding the "grubby" reality of service in a 1900's household, where servants "stank" and were regarded as domestic appliances. Others have responded by defending the show as escapist fantasy. Such controversy has stirred up precisely the kind of questions this blog aims to explore.

For a start, I think the show is more ambiguous than either of these arguments suggest. On the one hand, it has many wonderful moments. The first episode, for example, begins with a beautiful, sweeping opening shot in which the young kitchen maid Daisy makes her way around the house blacking stoves and lighting fireplaces. The camera pans away from this arduous physical work to take in the freshly starched valets and butlers, touching on class differences within the servant body. Indeed, the head footman's desire to rise up through the servant ranks makes him a more interesting and complex character than any in the Crawley family.

Other characters, however, are not so fully fleshed out. Most of the kitchen staff are created in the Upstairs, Downstairs mould, and the head butler Mr Carson is a typically staunch defender of the household hierarchy. Together they continue a tradition of jolly, content downstairs servants and loyal, content upstairs workers (at least in the first episode - I can't comment on the rest of the series yet).

These servants, it seems, are the ones which really annoy Schama and Newby. The historians share the belief that historical drama should depict its subjects as they truthfully were, and in the case of servants apparently this means resentful, angry and dirty. Schama insists that history is "meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane." But this assertion begs a question - who is to say what a 'truthful' depiction of a servant would look like? And is it ever possible to depict servitude 'truthfully', without any historical or moral bias?

Such questions are of course fundamental when thinking about the relationship between art and reality in its broadest terms. But the popularity of shows such as Downton, at a time when more and more families are employing domestic workers to cope with the exigencies of modern life means they are especially pressing and important.