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Not perfect freedom

‘Servants’ and ‘service’ have not always meant ‘servility’.

30 December 2009

12:00 AM

30 December 2009

12:00 AM

Up and Down Stairs Jeremy Musson

John Murray, pp.374, 25

‘Servants’ and ‘service’ have not always meant ‘servility’.

‘Servants’ and ‘service’ have not always meant ‘servility’. From the Middle Ages right through to the 16th century, everyone was servant to someone: a lord was servant to the king, a lesser lord to a greater. Children likewise served in the households of their parents’ equals: service was what one did before God, and before one’s superiors, in class, or age. And many servants were for display as much as utility: as the consumer durables of their time, their number gave their masters’ prosperity in physical form.

Gradually, as the world of family and servants became less closely entwined (by the end of the 18th century, ‘family’ meant ‘kin’, not merely all those who lived under one roof), servants became those who performed menial and unpleasant tasks. Musson, an architectural historian, is particularly deft at showing how this social separation found architectural shape, as country houses began to express the widening physical gap between employed and employers: servants’ halls began to appear, and servants no longer slept intermixed with the family. As soon as technology permitted, bells were wired in so that servants could remain out of earshot and yet within call.

While service was, for most of history, a harsh, never-ending cycle of toil and poverty, the myth of a golden age of domestic service stubbornly lingers. About this, Musson is ambivalent, focusing on examples of the lifelong devotion of servants to their upper-class employers, yet at the same time recognising that John Macdonald, an 18th-century footman, was closer to the norm, with 25 masters in his nearly 50 years of service: one every 20 months. And while some larger estates paid annuities or allowances for long service, that was, of course, at the whim of the employer. If the servants were sacked, or became ill and unable to work, or if the household was broken up on the marriage or death of their employers, not only did their jobs vanish, so did their homes. In 1893, Musson notes, the House of Commons Select Committee heard that ex-servants made up over 30 per cent of the residents of the Birmingham workhouse.

Musson highlights examples of what he calls ‘mutual’ esteem between servants and masters, but most of his material shows a one-way street, imposing a self-serving sentimentality on a pragmatic relationship. The sister of the artist Richard Redgrave was governess to Lady Dorothy Nevill and called by her employer ‘a much-loved friend’. This is, however, starkly countered by Redgrave’s painting ‘The Governess’, with its upper-class girls playing in bright sunlight, while the governess in mourning clothes sits abandoned in the dark: a clear comment on Miss Redgrave and her coevals’ lives.

Similarly, it is difficult to read the instructions for the Countess of Leicester’s lady’s maid in 1822 —

She must not have a will of her own in anything . . . She must not have a great appetite . . . or care when or how she dines, how often disturbed, or even if she has no dinner at all . . . She must run quick the instant she is called . . . Morning, noon and night she must not mind going without sleep if her mistress requires her attendance

— and then not choke when Musson writes, ‘we cannot help feeling that such [great houses] are the product of a more rational age’. It was surely unsurprising that with the advent of the first world war 400,000 servants — almost half the workforce — enlisted or became factory workers. What they found, even in the trenches, was that the hours were shorter, the work less heavy, the supervision less intrusive and the pay better.

Musson is excellent on the changing face of service in the 20th century: how class distinctions broke down, how employers learned to treat their staff as employees rather than machinery. The section on the shift to mass National Trust ownership, where housemaids’ and footmen’s skills become recognised as professional ‘conservation’, is trenchant and rewarding. And throughout there are many incidental pleasures, such as the Suffolk landowner who advertised for a butler in 1775: must be able to ‘shoot and shave well’.

There are not many servants’ voices that have survived, but where they exist, Musson lets them be heard, including the sardonic footman who travels to London with his master:

The Baron was a big bug at his seat in the country, but when he got to London, among the other big bugs, he was not a big bug after all.

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