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).