This is the first in a series of posts about Jane Austen and Servants, looking at the roles of servants in her novels and in turn what their roles entailed in a Georgian household.
We hear a lot about housekeepers in Jane Austen’s works. Mr Knightley’s Mrs Hodges sounds a redoubtable woman, cross at his sending Jane Fairfax the last apples from his store, but described by her admiring employer as clever, or at least as clever as the Elton’s housekeeper , Mrs Wright:
I will answer for it, that mine thinks herself full as clever, and would spurn anybody’s assistance
Emma Chapter 42
Wright herself is shown to be full of professional rivalry unchecked by her appalling employers, and holds Mrs Hodges reputation as “cheap” . On that fateful visit to Southerton Court in Mansfield Park we meet Mr Rushworth’s housekeeper who finds a soul mate in Mrs Norris(*shudder*). Of course the housekeeper we know best is the wonderfully voluble but correct Mrs Reynolds in Pride and Prejudice, the venerable servant at Pemberley House full of affection for her employer and discreet scorn for the dastardly Wickham.
What exactly did the role of housekeeper entail?
Her role in a household was described with minute exactness in Samuel and Sarah Adams’s book, The Compelte Servant (1825). As might be imagined the Housekeeper was the most senior female servant.
… she is the locum tenens, the Lady Bountiful, and the active representative of the mistress of the family; and is expected to do, or to see done, everything that appertains to the good and orderly management of the household.
She was responsible for the provisioning of food and spices and linen in the household:
The situation of a housekeeper, in almost every family, is of great importance.-She superintends nearly the whole of the domestic establishment,-has generally the control and direction of the servants, particularly of the female servants-has the care of the household furniture and linen-of all the grocery-dried and other fruits, spices, condiments, soap, candles, and stores of all kinds, for culinary and other domestic uses.
She was also in charge of the Still Room- that most fragrant of places, much preferable to the heat and bustle of the kitchen-where she would make cosmetics remedies, and preserves:
She makes all the pickles, preserves, and sometimes the best pastry.-She generally distils and prepares all the compound and simple waters, and spirits, essential and other oils, perfumery, cosmetics, and similar articles that are prepared at home, for domestic purposes…
The Housekeeper now (after dinner has been served-JFW)begins to find herself at leisure; by this time too, the maids will have done the principal part of their work above stairs, and the cook, kitchen maid , and scullion, have washed up, and cleared away every thing, and cleaned up the kitchen.-After tea, the provident housekeeper will begin to think about tomorrow; evening being the best time for preparing all things that are likely to be wanted soon.-Small quantities of spices should be pounded and ground, and laid by in bottles, well corked, ready for use.-Much less spices are necessary, in gravies, &c. when thus prepared, than when boiled whole.-Raisins may be stoned, if wanted next day.-Currants may be washed, picked, and perfectly dried.
White sugars should be broken, or pounded, rolled with a bottle, and sifted. Some of the oranges and lemons, to be used for juice, should be pared, and the rind put by to dry; and of some, when squeezed, and the pulp scraped out, the rinds may be kept dry for grating.
This would not apply to Mrs Reynolds at Pemberley, but in households where there was no house-steward, the housekeeper was responsible for all items of domestic expenditure and marketing:
In families where there is a house-steward, the marketing will be done, and the tradesmen’s bills will be collected, examined, and discharged, by him; but in many families the business of marketing and of keeping the accounts devolves on the housekeeper. It is therefore incumbent on her to be well informed of the prices and qualities of all articles of household consumption in general use; and the seasons for procuring them, in order that by comparing prices and qualities, she may be able to substitute those that are most reasonable, but equally to her purpose, and best attainable, for others that are most costly or more scarce.
She was also responsible for ascertaining that the household was not being swindled by unscrupulous suppliers( remember that in the 18th and 19th centuries adulteration of food stuffs was rife) :
But, by whomsoever the provisions may be bought, it behoves the housekeeper to examine them as they come in,-to see that in weight and measure they agree with the tickets sent with them,-and to make the necessary arrangements, in conjunction with the cook, for their due appropriation
When the food for the family was actually prepared and ready to be sent up to the dining room, the housekeeper’s responsibilities increased, overseeing the butler’s arrangements:
The etiquette of the table being arranged by the bill of fare, previously made out, and the dishes laid in order below stairs; it is the province of the housekeeper, when dinner is served up, to see that the butler has placed them properly on the table above; this requires a quick glance of the eye, and a correct taste to measure distances,-and to see that the dishes accord with each other, and thereby form a pleasing, inviting, and well-grouped picture
In some households she had to be au fait with the art of carving- a skill not contemplated much today, but in Jane Austen’s era it was a skill that both masters, mistresses and senior servants had to acquit themselves well in or betray ill-bred manners:
In the situation she will have to carve, and as she will occasionally be required to assist the cook in dissecting a dish to be sent up stairs, it is indispensably necessary that she be proficient in the art of carving: and besides, to carve meat well, is a great saving. It would argue prudence and economy in her, to see that the pieces of bread which are brought down stairs, be eaten at this table, or in the servants’-hall, and it would be extravagance to suffer new bread to be eaten below stairs.
She was also responsible for the moral tone of the household of servants in her charge, as such it was recommended that:
She ought to be a steady middle-aged woman, of great experience in her profession, and a tolerable knowledge of the world.
For the tone of the household reflected upon her conduct:
In her conduct, she should be moral, exemplary, and assiduous, as the harmony, comfort, and economy of the family will greatly depend on her example; and she must know, that no occurrence can be too trifling for her attention, that may lead to these results, and whereby waste and unnecessary expense may be avoided.
When the entire management of the servants is deputed to her, her situation becomes the more arduous and important. If servants have hardships to undergo, she will let them see, that she feels for the necessity of urging them. To cherish the desire of pleasing in them, she will convince them, that they may succeed in their endeavours to please her. Human nature is the same in all stations. Convince the servants that you have a considerate regard for their comforts, and they will be found to be grateful, and to reward your attention by their own assiduity: besides, nothing is so endearing as being courteous to our inferiors.
Female servants who would pursue an honest course, have numberless difficulties to contend with, and should, therefore, be treated kindly. The housekeeper in a great family, has ample means of doing good; and she will, doubtless, recollect that it is a part of her duty to protect and encourage virtue, as the best preventive from vice.
Mrs Parkes in her book, Domestic Duties (18125) combined practical domestic advice and conduct book strictures. Domestic Duties was written as a series of conversations between the inexperienced Mrs L and the older and much wiser Mrs B, and has this to say about the qualifications necessary to be a housekeeper:
Trust-worthyness is an essential quality in a housekeeper; but if she be not as vigilant as she is honest she cannot discern her duty well. As she is the deputy of her mistress, she should endeavour to regard everything around her with the keenness an interest of a principal, rather than the indifference of a servant..
She also had this advice for the employer,which contradicts the oft held view that elite women in this era had little practical “hands on” experience of housekeeping in their own households::
Even if you should be perfectly satisfied that your housekeeper is a woman of great integrity you will still find it desirable to fix your eye continually upon her that her vigilance and integrity may not relax for want of this incitment. Symptoms of neglect on her art should never be over looked as they would tend to throw the whole house into confusion and irregular habits.
This is a situation of which the famed Mrs Rundell was aware ,as she wrote in her book A New System of Domestic Cookery:
There was a time when ladies knew nothing beyond their own family concerns ; but in the present day there are many who know nothing about them
A elite woman who know much about her domestic concerns was Susannah Whatman, as portrayed her by Rommney:
She was the wife of James Whatman,
proprietor of the famed Turkey Mill paper mill in Kent which supplied most of the famous artists of the day. She left to us a housekeeping manual prepared as advised by the wise Mrs B in Domestic Duties
Mrs B: Have you provided yourself with a cookery book?
Mrs L : Certainly .I have purchased Mrs Rundells and the Cooks Orabcle.How could I go on for one day without them? Yet my study of these important books is not always satisfactory, not are the effects produced from them at all equal to my expectations..
Mrs B… as it is not always well to follow these receipt books implicitly I recommend you to form one for yourself …
Susannah Whatman in her manual for the instruction and use of her staff at Turkey Court and then at Vinters,which was her home till her death in 1814, provides many details of her housekeepers duties which other manuals omitted:
The housekeeper washes and irons her own small things and her Mistresses .A board at Vinters has been put up for her in the mangling room that the heat might be avoided in summer.
The housekeeper mends her master’s silk stockings , ruffles his shirts and new collars and risbands them. All the linen looked over in the Store room Monday morning and stains taken out etc. Housekeeper to put any stitches in Mr Whatman’s muslin neckcloths that Mrs W has not mended for him…The first thing a Housekeeper should teach a new servant is to carry her candle upright. The next thing is those general directions that belong to “her’ place in particular such as not setting the brooms and brushes where they will make a mark and all those common directions.
A housekeeper by practise must acquire so quick an eye that if she comes occasionally into a room that is cleaning she must see at once if it is going on properly…
The payment for this onerous and important work in a household was not that great:
The Salary of the Housekeeper is from twenty-five to fifty guineas per annum, dependent on the extent of the family, and the nature of the business she undertakes.
Note that a House Steward would expect to receive remuneration of between £100 -£250 per annum and perhaps more. A butler could expect to earn £50 to £80 per annum in large households. Hmmm……..
But of course a housekeeper could expect to receive an addition to her income in grand households, in the form of gratuities earned by showing guests round the house as Mrs Reynolds does in Pride and Prejudice. And we shall look at that aspect of a housekeeper’s role in our next post on the role of the housekeeper in Jane Austen’s era.