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Because of Jane Austen’s fleeting references to servants in her works, I have heard people refer to her so-called method of hiding them, as Her Invisible Servants, implying that, as she was mostly silent on their roles and physical presence, they meant nothing to her and she was indifferent to them.
This is not correct.From the evidence of her letters she was clearly involved in the detail of her own servants lives and of those employed by the various branches of her family.The letter written from Lyme of the 14th september 1804 talks affectionately of James and Jenny ,their servants. Jane Austen had a very close and long friend ship with Anne Sharpe, the governess to Edward Knight’s children.
We have to remember, I think, that she was writing for an audience that understood the milieu in which she set her novels and she didn’t need to specify in a documentary-like manner all the servants employed in a household.
But we do get to hear about some of them. Tantalising glimpses are given of the amount of servants that households large and small would employ: we get to know, by report,Patty the maid of all work employed by Miss Bates and her mother in Emma; Mackenzie the gardener at Kellynch in Persuasion: Rebecca ,the maid of all work in the Prices overcrowded and slovenly household at Portsmouth in Mansfield Park.
Certainly not many of Jane Austen’s servants actually speak in the novels,but those that do are memorable, for they have important plot points to make. Baddesley the butler at Mansfield plays a small but stellar role, fully ready to rebuke the horrid Mrs Norris, and in one sentence encapsulates all we need to know about the Servant’s Hall ‘s views on that dreadful woman. The redoubtable Mrs Reynolds in Pride and Prejudice is surely loquacious enough for us all …
Mr. Gardiner, highly amused by the kind of family prejudice to which he attributed her excessive commendation of her master, soon led again to the subject; and she dwelt with energy on his many merits as they proceeded together up the great staircase.
If we want to learn more about the detail of the servants and their roles in these household we have to look elsewhere. Luckily there are some good books available to us at reasonable prices..
The first I would recommend is The Complete Servant by Samuel and Sarah Adams, who both worked as servants in our era and recorded their views on the different roles of each category of employee in this book.
This is a reprint of the 1825 text. It is crammed full of wonderful detail about the role of every possible household , indoors and outdoors servant,together with helpful calculations of the type of income then needed to support different sized households.
If you are only going to purchase one book on servants in our era than this is the one I would most highly recommend.
Its foreward is by Pamela Horn and she is the author of the second book I would recommend: Flunkies and Scullions,a marvellous in-depth look at the role of the servant in the 18th century,again impeccably researched and full of glorious detail.
And finally a new book on the subject of servant has been written by the wonderful historian, Jeremy Musson entitled Up and Down Stairs:the History of the Country House Servant.
Despite only containing two chapters on servants in our era, it is none the less a fascinating read, and gives an over view of servants lives from the middle ages to the present-day. It is a throughly enjoyable read, well researched and has the most fascinating chapter on black servants in England during the 18th century that I have ever read. I would recommend it for that chapter alone.
As an over view of the history of the servant in country-house households it is a wonderful, informative read.And that really cannot be said of too many non-fiction books today.
There are of course many original texts on servants roles and lives out there: the trick is finding and affording them! I recently bought an 1825 edition of The Lady’s Maid,which is turning out to be a riveting read: