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New Worlds: Faithful (and Unfaithful) Servants

The New Worlds series is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon! www.patreon.com/swan_tower

Servants and aristocrats: wildly different on the social scale, yet often found together.

Not that aristocrats are the only people with servants. Over the years of this Patreon I’ve made repeated mention of how labor-intensive things are in a pre-industrial society; well, who was doing that labor? If you could afford to outsource it to another person, you often did — and the threshold of affording it was a good deal lower than you might think.

Which is still true to some extent now. (We may have laundry machines, but the clothes don’t fold themselves, and I’m still waiting for a self-cleaning bathroom.) The scale, however, has shifted massively. I’m willing to bet that most of the people reading this essay don’t have more than maybe a cleaner who comes in once a week or once a month, and probably not even that. Regular staff are very much a luxury for the rich.

It’s always been a sliding scale, though. The household of an eighteenth-century European nobleman might include everything from stable-boys mucking out the horse stalls without ever seeing their lord and master up close to footmen whose job was to stand around in decorative livery and open doors when needed. Way down at the other end of the spectrum, a middling household in that time period might just have a single maid-of-all-work responsible for a wide variety of jobs.

In both cases, this isn’t just about practicality; it’s also about status signaling. Being able to hire that maid put you above your neighbors who had to empty the ashes from their own fireplaces. At the top end of the scale, being able to dress and pay those footmen showed you had so much money you could blow it on people being useless, and having hangers-on of any kind has always made you look more like a more important individual. But the requirements of such signaling can lead in some pretty stupid directions, producing elites who either don’t know how to perform simple tasks, or who refuse to do so because they feel it’s beneath them. Even the mistress of that middling household might put on airs about how she can’t possibly be expected to change her child’s nappies or even close the curtains with her own two hands now that she has “her girl” to do that for her.

At least having servants to perform those duties was a step up from using slaves instead. The list of domestic responsibilities, however, was and is much the same. Cooking, laundry, house-cleaning, child-rearing, grounds-keeping, maintenance of vehicles — even getting dressed, when clothing was elaborate enough that you couldn’t accomplish that on your own. Not all of these jobs still need doing today, especially as things like furnaces replace fireplaces, but quite a few remain. We might not describe the people who take care of them as “servants” anymore, because that word implies a hierarchy we’re supposedly past, but the core concept hasn’t really changed.

The dynamics around that concept, however, very much have. For one thing, different people tend to work as domestic help nowadays. We have laws against employing children, whereas girls in particular used to “go into service” quite young — even single-digit young — and frequently left that line of work when they married, because now they had to go do the same tasks at home. Also, servants used to be predominantly lower-class members of the same ethnic group as their employers, while the modern increase in immigration means there’s now a distinct division in who is working for whom.

Furthermore, there’s a greater likelihood now that even the very wealthy have their staff commuting in each day for work, rather than living in the house or elsewhere on the property. Motor transportation and the kind of automation that speed tasks up mean there’s less need to have someone right there at all times, ready to work from the moment they wake up to the moment they fall asleep. (You don’t need someone to build up the fire for you in the middle of the night if you can just flick on a light switch or turn up the heat.) Servants who dwell with their employers have been always much more liable to be exploited: worked unreasonably long hours, denied privileges and comforts, physically and sexually harassed and assaulted. Those perils unfortunately haven’t gone away — especially for servants who are undocumented immigrants — but legal measures and the ability to escape to your own place at the end of the day have at least provided some small measure of protection.

Having servants around at all hours intensifies the dynamic that is, to me, the most interesting for fiction purposes: servants hear everything. They’re present when their employers aren’t performing for guests, so they see all the human foibles that are masked in public, witness the reactions normally hidden behind a facade of politeness. Even without actively eavesdropping, they overhear arguments and secrets being shared. Cleaning a room may turn up stashes of money, concealed treasures, letters from a lover. More than a few novels make use of this access, with characters being hired on as servants in order to investigate a house, or paying the staff for gossip and private information.

Of course, that’s a double-edged sword. While some employers treat their servants so much like inhuman furniture that they never bother to worry about being observed or overheard, others are fully aware of the security vulnerabilities walking around their houses. The magnanimous ones pay and treat their staff well enough to ensure their loyalty, but many resort to various forms of threat instead: of physical punishment, of docked pay, of being turned out without reference. That last is no joke (and poses a barrier, often ignored in fiction, to that “become a maid for investigative purposes” plan): precisely because you’re giving these people so much access to your person and belongings, it’s important to know who you’re hiring. Recommendations from previous employers or other trustworthy sources like a hiring bureau are vital for this, and a servant who can’t produce any such thing may have a hard time finding another job. Since even honest servants know they might be accused of theft the moment the mistress can’t find her favorite earrings, many of them will be chary of doing anything genuinely untoward.

Which means that elites and their servants are in a constant, fragile, contentious dance, with each depending heavily on the other in their own respective ways. That relationship can wind up as anything from the trope of the “faithful old retainer” who’s served the family for the last fifty years to households like that of the Scotsman Thomas Carlyle, whose wife Jane went through thirty-nine maids in thirty-four years (not counting temps) and complained endlessly of her inability to find good help. Whatever form the dynamic takes, it can be fodder for a good story!

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10 thoughts on “New Worlds: Faithful (and Unfaithful) Servants”

  1. Howard Brazee

    It is interesting that clothes showed status even more. Clothing was expensive, servants were cheap.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Depends on the type of servant, but yeah. Putting them all in matching outfits (which of course had to fit properly; they couldn’t necessarily be recycled from one servant to the next) is going the extra mile.

  2. I once saw someone mentioning the invisible servants of Jane Austen. I went through _Pride_ and did at least find occasional mention of them, or of housekeepers, but they don’t really exist as people, at least among the Bennet family.

    OTOH Tolkien’s rich hobbits seem to really not have them. Bilbo does his own cooking and washing up and cleaning, and there’s no hint that Frodo is much different in Bag End. Sam does gardening, but it’s not clear if that’s being a full-time worker for Bag End, or a multi-client gardening service that visits. Sam does leave to “do for” Frodo at Crickhollow (the cover story) and acts as his servant, but that seems driven more by Sam’s own expectation than by Frodo’s (or by pay…) Whether all this reflects moroe Tolkien’s idea of egalitarian hobbits or an ignorance of pre-modern work, I can’t say… I can’t help imagining that Bag End at least sends out the laundry.

    1. Marie Brennan

      I would guess that it reflects the hobbits being kind of a different era from the rest of Middle-Earth — they feel vastly more modern, and in modern times our reliance on servants has declined. But it’s declined because of mechanization, which the hobbits don’t have, so yeah, they’re just kind of an idyllic (mostly) egalitarian rural society where things are nice without anybody having to visibly work hard to make them so.

  3. In the 19th century, a writer used “hires servants” as the dividing line between the poor — and the very poor. The poor might hire servants for specific tasks and hire the very old or very young, but they hired them.

  4. Don’t forget all of those servants who do non-household tasks, either: Bob Cratchit. Farther back, the qaestor/scribe (the one who, unlike the lord/otherhighmuckymuck, had put in the effort to learn the nonagrarian skills of reading and writing).

    Or, I suppose, the food taster (vbeg).

    1. Marie Brennan

      The utility of food tasters is rather dubious, of course — especially when it gets depicted as “we wait five minutes to see if they keel over, and if not, chow down.” But that doesn’t mean people didn’t have ’em anyway . . .

  5. I can’t help but think of a memoir written by a family member in which he describes establishing his own homestead in 1826. It was during the final months of his bachelorhood and he was the farm’s only human resident. He did all his arduous regular work the first day and then of course found no supper waiting for him when he returned to his log cabin, so he then had to churn and “dress” the butter (i.e. add salt), get a cookfire going in his hearth, and then do all the rest of the food preparation (including utensil sharpening) before he was finally able, at 10pm, past his usual bedtime, to sit down and eat. The very next day, he made an arrangement with the neighbors a quarter of a mile away to eat meals with them in exchange for his milk cow’s output along with a small monthly cash stipend. He confesses in the narrative he had not understood until then just how much work his mother and sisters did to keep the household running. To his credit, he was a person with deep admiration for his mother, aunts, and sisters and knew they contributed heavily. Even so, he was caught by surprise by much his understanding was insufficient.

    1. Marie Brennan

      We still get modern books that dismiss pre-industrial domestic labor as if it’s some kind of unimportant sideshow compared to the Real Work men did. I really appreciated the blog “A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry” putting textile production up on par with agriculture for 1) the amount of work that went into it and 2) its importance in keeping the human species alive and functioning, because holy hell do people underestimate its significance. And when I was working on the Onyx Court series, one of the research books I read talked about gentry wives as essentially being small business managers, complete with budgeting, supply chain management, H.R. responsibilities, and more.

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