Please join me in welcoming Eliza Shearer.
Below are the two links mentioned above.
7 Things that Jane Austen Novels Teach Us About Servants and their Masters in Regency England
Jane Austen lived at a time where servants were numerous and pervasive. Most of her characters employ people to run their homes and tend to their needs, and footmen, housekeepers, maids, and manservants are a constant background presence in Austen’s novels.
In some cases, Jane Austen mentions servants in passing, to add depth to her descriptions. However, in many instances, she uses servants to deliver information, advance or alter the course of the story or to highlight the positive or negative traits of other characters.
At all events, Jane Austen also had very definite ideas as to the role of servants, how they should behave and the kind of relationship that one ought to have with them. Here are some of the common themes we find in her novels:
1) Having servants is a mark of gentility
Austen’s novels cover a broad spectrum of financial circumstances, but even the most impoverished families in them can just about manage to have servants. In Emma, the Bates ladies have a single servant, Patty. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s parents employ two girls: Rebecca, “the upper servant,” and Sally, “an attendant girl” of “inferior appearance.”
Not having at least a maid to help around the house is a shameful evidence of near-destitution. Only Mrs Smith of Persuasion, as a “poor, infirm, helpless widow” with no friends and very little money, is “unable to afford herself the comfort of a servant,” although it is understood that she used to have several before her husband died.
2) The number of servants is a reflection of personal wealth
No surprises here: the richer the masters, the higher the number of staff working in a home. Stately homes such as Pemberley or Mansfield Park would have commanded a small army of servants to keep them ticking like clockwork. Contrast that to Longbourn, where there is a housekeeper, butler, cook, maid, and scullery maid to serve a household of seven.
Austen often uses the reduction in the number of servants to indicate a change for the worse in the circumstances of her heroines. In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood sisters and their mother have to make do with “two maids and a man” when they move to Devonshire. In Persuasion, a strong argument in favour of the Elliots’ move to Bath is that they will require fewer servants. And we have already seen what happens to Mrs Smith, who has lost her fortune to the extent that she can't even have a maid.
3) Servants are expected to be invisible
In the Regency, servants were expected not to be seen, nor heard. It sounds strange to our XXI century sensitivities, but even the kindest and most observant Austen characters fail to notice them. In Persuasion, this is Anne Elliot’s reaction when Mrs Smith talks to her about Nurse Rooke:
“Did you observe the woman who opened the door to you, when you called yesterday?”
“No. Was it not Mrs. Speed, as usual, or the maid? I observed no-one in particular.”
“It was my friend, Mrs. Rooke – Nurse Rooke, who, by the by, had a great curiosity to see you, and was delighted to be in the way to let you in.”
Persuasion, Chapter 21
Anne is not nasty or self-absorbed, quite the opposite, but she is just a woman of her time. A servant is “no-one in particular,” someone who is expected to open doors and deliver letters without further thought given to them.
4) Servants expose their masters to gossip
Servants were a notorious source of information on their masters. Anything the family did or discussed was at risk of being talked about. In the case of Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Reynolds, the housekeeper, “had evidently great pleasure in talking of her master and his sister.” She only has praise to give on Mr Darcy, but it’s likely that, had her opinions been negative, she would have shared them as well.
The only way for masters and mistresses to avoid the scrutiny of their servants was to be particularly careful about their communications. However, such things were difficult at times of high drama. In Pride and Prejudice, upon returning to Longbourn from Hunsford, Elizabeth despairs when she hears that the news of Lydia’s escape with Wickham has not been handled with discretion:
“Oh! Jane,” cried Elizabeth, “was there a servant belonging to it (the house) who did not know the whole story before the end of the day?”
Pride and Prejudice, chapter 47
Elizabeth’s concern is justified, because she knows that, once the servants have the details of the story, the town gossips won’t be long to follow suit.
5) Servants’ chat is not to be trusted
Because of their tendency to gossip, servants’ chat isn’t always reliable and can lead to serious misunderstandings. Austen uses this device very effectively in Sense and Sensibility, when a servant unwittingly causes a fair deal of despair to the Dashwood ladies with an apparently harmless piece of news:
Their (the Dashwoods) man-servant had been sent one morning to Exeter on business; and when, as he waited at table, he had satisfied the inquiries of his mistress as to the event of his errand, this was his voluntary communication--
‘I suppose, you know, ma’am, that Mr. Ferrars is married.’
Sense and Sensibility, chapter 47
The shock of the family is groundless, but Austen uses the servant’s words to add suspense, move the story forward and show Lucy Steele’s maliciousness.
6) One should not be too friendly towards the servants
Members of the gentry were expected to know their place. Only a handful of characters in Austen’s novels are friendly towards servants or those tending to their needs, and in all cases, their behaviour is carefully weaved into the story to show character traits, such as their self-interest or their loneliness.
For example, in Mansfield Park, when the family visits Sotherton, Mrs Norris is immediately drawn to the servants. She chats with them, asks them questions and shows interest in their work, and in return she receives cream cheese and pheasants' eggs for her home. Her selfish behaviour results in Julia Bertram having to stay with Mrs Rushworth and ultimately in Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram being unchaperoned for quite some time.
Mrs Smith of Persuasion is also very friendly with the woman who nurses her. In her case, however, loneliness rather than self-interest is her sole motivation. Of course, Mrs Smith also finds out about Mr Elliot’s supposed engagement with Anne thanks to her friend, another instance of servant interactions acting as plot devices.
7) Masters have a responsibility towards their servants
Former servants unable to work due to their advanced age or poor health were wholly dependant on the willingness of their families to support them. But being in service did not always sit well with marrying or having children, which meant that old servants were at risk of ending up living in squalor. A way to make up for a life of dedication was to leave faithful servants with a small annuity that would help them enjoy their old age in dignity.
But not everyone liked annuities. In Sense and Sensibility, Fanny Dashwood explains why she rather despises the notion:
“An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it. (...) my mother was clogged with the payment of three to old superannuated servants by my father's will, and it is amazing how disagreeable she found it. Twice every year these annuities were to be paid; and then there was the trouble of getting it to them; and then one of them was said to have died, and afterwards it turned out to be no such thing. My mother was quite sick of it.”
Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 2
Compare Mrs Dashwood’s attitude with that of kind Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. His sense of responsibility towards an old servant who has “fallen into misfortune” leads him to “visit him in a spunging-house, where he was confined for debt.” There, he finds Eliza, his disgraced sister-in-law and former love, who is dying of consumption, and whose little girl he takes into his care.
Some masters chose to keep elderly servants on, with much lighter or less taxing duties. In my novel Miss Darcy’s Beaux, Mr Darcy Senior engages Nanny Fraser, the old nursery maid that once looked after Lady Anne to supervise Georgiana’s playtime, which is often shared with young Wickham. Below is an extract of chapter 2, where Georgiana reminiscences the long summer afternoons spent playing with Wickham. We also get a glimpse of infamous Mrs Youngue. Enjoy!
Miss Darcy’s Beaux
The following morning I breakfasted alone. I was informed that my brother had had to leave early after receiving an urgent notice from Mr Harvey, the estate keeper, and that Elizabeth was convalescing in her room. I was eager to see her, but it was still early. Looking out of the window I saw that the sun was out and the ground was dry, so I fetched my warmest shawl and stepped outside.
It was a bright, mild day in late February. The grounds at Pemberley had not looked as inviting in months. The winter frost was giving way to patches of green, and tiny buds were visible everywhere. I first thought of heading west towards the formal garden, but the pull of the morning sun was strong, and I headed eastwards, towards the majestic willows that grew by the stream, imposing in the barren landscape. Here and there, I could see timid dashes of colour. Where there had been snowdrops, there were primroses, their beautiful blooms opening as if they were as starved of sunlight as I was after a long winter confined in the house. The nests that had shown such industriousness in the summer and spring had been empty for months, but would soon have new occupiers.
The sun was getting stronger by the minute, and I realised I didn't have a parasol with me. I hadn't thought I would need one this early in the day. Mrs Younge's words resonated unwelcome in my thoughts. ‘Your porcelain skin is your best asset, Miss Darcy, and you should make sure it remains so,’ she used to say. She was extremely vigilant when it came to my complexion; unfortunately, she was much less concerned about my virtue. I blushed in spite of myself. The disgraceful event was safely in my past, at least.
My walk led me to the pond where, as a little girl, Wickham had taken me on tadpole hunts. I remembered the long summers together, his playfulness, his attentiveness, the way he had of combing his hair back with his fingers. Wickham was fond of telling me stories. According to him, the tadpoles were an army of disguised soldiers, ready to defend Pemberley from a terrible dragon that hid behind the hills. He used to say that the minute the beast attacked us, Mr Tiddles the cat would become a white horse, and his trusty pocket knife would turn into a majestic sword, ready for action. As he said this, his arm would be up in the air, waving an invisible weapon, and his eyes would sparkle, eager for the fight.
I sighed. The stories came when my brother was in the study, learning the ropes of estate management. From an early age, my father had been eager to educate his son and heir in the affairs that in due course would become his responsibility, and my brother had applied himself to the task, his conscientiousness and sense of duty as much a part of him as his dark hair. But away from the house, things were different for Wickham and me. In those long afternoons, if the weather was good, we were allowed to play outside under the supervision of Nanny Fraser, the Pemberley nursemaid. Wickham would walk by her side, his charm oozing from his every pore. We'd reach the pond, the poor woman quite out of breath as she was getting into old age; after all, Nanny Fraser had cared for Mama and her brother and sister when they were little. Wickham, ever the gentleman, would then guide her towards a lonely bench in the perfect shady spot, overlooking the house, and say ‘Nanny Fraser, won't you sit down? We've had a fair bit of exercise. I'll play with Georgiana right there. I'll look after her, don't you worry.’ The old nursemaid would grumble a bit, saying that she just needed to get her breath back, and take a seat, insisting that she would be with us in a few minutes, but invariably she would be snoring after a short while.
As soon as Nanny Fraser was asleep, Wickham would take my hand and drag me to the pond. He taught me to put my hands in the water slowly, fingers gently touching, so as not to scare the tadpoles, then bring the edges of the palms swiftly together around an unsuspecting victim. Then came the hard bit, lifting the cage with the tadpole inside and enough water to keep it from wriggling out. Wickham often had to help me, and he would do so by covering my pudgy child hands with his.
As a young girl, I was in awe of Wickham, just as I was in awe of my brother for entirely different reasons. Where Wickham was stories and laughs, Fitzwilliam was concern and sternness. I loved my brother dearly, he was my picture of a perfect gentleman, but I was in love with Wickham even before I even knew what romance was. What followed, the folly of a fifteen-year-old girl eager to escape the sheltered world she had always lived in with the man she had always adored, came close to disgracing me forever. Thankfully, our idiotic plans had not come to fruition. Only just.
I felt the familiar jolt deep inside of me. It was weaker every time, but it was still there. I sighed again. The future that we might have shared, I could imagine, but I would never experience. And now Wickham was married to Lydia, Elizabeth’s sister.
About Miss Darcy’s Beaux
Fitzwilliam Darcy’s beloved sister Georgiana is now a woman of twenty. After living in the enclosed safety of Pemberley for years, she is sent to London for the season with Lady Catherine de Bourgh as her chaperone. Lady Catherine is determined that her niece shall make a splendid match. But will Georgiana allow her domineering aunt to decide for her? Or will she do as her brother did, and marry for love?
About Eliza Shearer
Eliza Shearer is a long-time an admirer of Jane Austen's work and the author of Miss Darcy’s Beaux, the first volume in her Austeniana series. She can often be found enjoying long walks and muddying her petticoats, or re-reading Jane Austen's novels by the fireside. She is very partial to bread and butter pudding, satin slippers and bonnets and ribbons, but has never cared much for cards. You can find her on Twitter @Eliza_Shearer_ or at https://elizashearerblog.wordpress.com.
What a lovely excerpt that you shared with us, Ms. Shearer. It was sweet and telling. Thank you. I'm eager to read more of your story. I am hearing good things about your book and I wish you the best. It was an honor to have you visit today and I hope you will come back in the future.
I also enjoyed your text on servants and masters. That has always been a topic of fascination to me. It seems that some have the best of relationships and others the worst. I'm sure sometimes it has more to do with the master but can also have much to do with a whether a servant is trustworthy or not. Thank you for giving us some things to ponder and for also including the links to more information on the subject.
Now, happy Readers, there is a giveaway Eliza Shearer is giving away one eBook of Miss Darcy's Beaux, and the giveaway is international. Have your share in the conversation to be entered. Have you ever wondered about this interesting relationship between above stairs and below stairs? If so, what are your thoughts? When you comment, make sure I have your contact info should you be the winner. Giveaway will end at 11:59 P. M. on the 2nd of October. Good luck to all.