Domestic Servants in the Victorian Era

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Domestic Servants in the Victorian Era

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1sylviacr
Nov 11, 2013, 10:28pm

Who would you consider is one of the most talked about domestic servants fictional or non from the Victorian era?

2razzamajazz
Edited: Nov 12, 2013, 3:19am

In the British television series running into several seasons, Downtown Abbey, if I am not mistaken featured characters as Victorian domestic servants.

3CurrerBell
Nov 12, 2013, 3:27am

Do "domestic servants" include governesses?

4Booksloth
Nov 12, 2013, 5:30am

#3 Good question! Judging by your user name I'm guessing you have read Charlotte Bronte's thoughts on the invidious position of governesses and her and her sisters' problems with that position.

Even at the time nobody was really sure where exactly the governess fell in society. She frequently came from a 'good' but impoverished family, having had a genteel education herself but now finding herself in the position of having to support herself financially. She had slipped below the status of her employers but was considered to be socially above the other household staff. Servants believed her to think herself 'above' them while many employers feared that she considered herself secretly to be as good as they were. So it turned out that often the least trusted person in the household was the one with that most vital job of caring for the children.

Occasionally it happened the other way around, when a daughter of a poor family had been eductaed in the hopes of her being able to rise in society. Unfortunately, it frequently had the result of lodging her firmly between classes - too good for one; not good enough for the other - and was often a lonely and rather miserable life.

If you are particularly interested in the life of governesses you might enjoy a fascinating book on the subject - Other People's Daughters by Ruth Brandon, which gives an insight into the lives of many young women so employed.

5lilithcat
Nov 12, 2013, 9:34am

> 2

Downton Abbey is Edwardian. The first episode was set in 1912, more than a decade after Victoria's death.

6CurrerBell
Nov 12, 2013, 10:06am

4> I have it (assuming it's otherwise titled Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres) sitting in my Bronte bookcase, though I've never yet gotten around to reading it.

7SassyLassy
Nov 12, 2013, 10:08am

Housekeepers were often important characters in Victorian literature. Wuthering Heights is just one example.

As to governesses, I wouldn't consider them servants as such. They did not engage in manual work and expectations with regard to their education were different than those of other household help. Also while governesses might entertain the fantasy of marrying into the family, I can't think off hand of housekeepers doing that, although a Wilkie Collins scenario is nagging in the back of my mind.

Thanks Booksloth for the recommendation. Another useful work from a contemporary viewpoint is Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management where she discusses the hiring of household staff, their roles and their compensation.

Interesting topic, sylvia. What are your thoughts CurrerBell? I suspect you have more than a passing acquaintance with Jane Eyre!

8CurrerBell
Nov 12, 2013, 10:35am

If we exclude governesses (though they were expected to help with sewing and such), then Wuthering Heights has to be the best Bronte example for this thread, for Nelly Dean especially and also for Joseph. Jane Eyre's Mrs. Fairfax and Bessie are both such relatively minor characters.

But if we include the "honorable Bronte" (Elizabeth Gaskell), then we've got Cranford's Martha, Miss Matty's maid, who's a fairly significant character by the end of the story (nothing more to avoid SPOILER). Though Martha is definitely a bit romanticized.

Now there's a good question. The loyalty of domestics to their employers. Is this in any way similar to the loyalty of a character like "Mammy" in Gone with the Wind? Is this kind of loyalty something that's romanticized (if that's the correct word) by "domestic life" novelists? Like Margaret Mitchell's romanticizing slavery?

9Marissa_Doyle
Nov 12, 2013, 10:37am

OP, are you asking for a specific servant, or type of servant?

If you're looking for specific persons, I'd venture John Brown, Queen Victoria's ghillie and later personal servant, as one of the most well-known servants of the Victorian era. Her Indian servants, especially one known as the Munshi (a personal servant and her tutor in Hindi) were also well known.

10Marissa_Doyle
Nov 12, 2013, 10:48am

CurrerBell, I think nannies as a class were often very dedicated personally to their charges...and many of the English governesses described in When Miss Emmie was in Russia: English Governesses Before, During, and After the October Revolution often risked their lives for their charges and their families.

11Booksloth
Nov 13, 2013, 6:15am

#5 Downton Abbey is Edwardian.

Not any more it isn't. We're now up to 1922, well into the reign of George V.

#6 Ah yes, another of those annoying English v American name changes. That's the one indeed.

12thorold
Jul 2, 2014, 7:59am

(Coming to this thread very late)

I'm sure John Brown must have been the best-known servant among his contemporaries. Maybe Sam Weller in fiction.

From a modern perspective, what about Elizabeth Barrett Browning's maid, Wilson? She gets an entire six-page footnote from Virginia Woolf (in Flush) and a complete historical novel to herself in Margaret Forster's Lady's maid, not to mention all sorts of academic journal articles.

13SassyLassy
Nov 6, 2017, 6:34pm

For a look at nonfictional servants, Jane Carlyle seemed to have very little luck with her domestic help, as detailed in The Carlyles at Home, a look at Thomas and Jane's life together, also seen in Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (not so much domestic help there).

14bluepiano
Nov 21, 2017, 8:13am

Mmm, if the Carlyles ran through 32 maids in 34 years I doubt it was a matter of bad luck. Alarming staff turnover. Those poor maids.

Rose's book is great fun, isn't it?

Hannah Cullwick is to me the outstanding Victorian maid. Munby: Man of Two Worlds from Arthur's perspective; Love and Dirt, from Hannah's; and Watching Hannah for an academic's take on the odd if not aberrant menage.

15LolaWalser
Nov 22, 2017, 12:22pm

>14 bluepiano:

And now I'm having delightful flashbacks to Michael Knowles' character in You Rang, M'Lord?

16bluepiano
Nov 22, 2017, 5:28pm

>15 LolaWalser: Had to google that--hadn't heard of the show but shall keep an eye out for re-runs if I can be assured that it's not in the broad strain of British humour. Teddy Meldrum was a sort of anti-Munby given that he liked maids' clean faces and scent of soap, or at least so wiki says: that book I mentioned was called Love and Dirt for good reason. Perhaps it was a matter of whether one enjoyed ogling the maid scrubbing a fire grate or instead when scrubbed up for her betters back in the day when catching a glimpse of a woman's calf whilst studying Latin conjugations at the age of 8 would lead to a lifelong fetish.

17LolaWalser
Nov 22, 2017, 6:45pm

Love and Dirt--Joyce would approve!

I'm afraid You Rang, M'Lord? probably IS more on the "broad" side of British humour, as far as my touristic view of the matter can make out, but rather less so than, say, Are you being served? or something like the Carry On movies. It could get quite satirical actually, but without meanness. Oh, just remembered the fantastic genderbending daughter of the house who blew my tiny early teens brain... other than her, there was Teddy, the Monty Pythonesque useless upper class scion with the maid fetish (more as in scullery maid, not dainty French), and a ditzy daughter not above eyeing the husky servants... I didn't see the whole run but what I did catch was amusing.

18thorold
Nov 22, 2017, 11:46pm

>17 LolaWalser: When I first saw Downton Abbey, it struck me that this must be one of the few occasions in TV history where the satirical send-up came before the pompous, romantic costume-drama it was mocking. Twenty years before...

19LolaWalser
Nov 23, 2017, 11:14am

Heh! I only saw one or two eps with Iain Glen--a sexy villain character regularly attracts my attention--but I think I know what you mean... I can't stand sentimental aristo porn, only makes me wish for guillotines for all.