Note: this is a reprint of a post which originally appeared on AllAboutRomance.com.
[trigger warning: discussion of sexual harassment/assault]
Happy new year, all!
Being a servant is not a great job. I knew that when I set out to research Listen to the Moon (my new Regency romance about an impassive valet and a snarky maid who marry to get a plum job), and most of what I read just made it seem worse and worse.
Part of why Longbourn (Jo Baker’s Pride and Prejudice retelling from the servants’ point of view) didn’t quite work for me (I DNF’ed a few chapters in) was the constant detailing of servants’ misery. Their hands are dry! They work long hours! They have to empty chamber pots! It felt like there wasn’t anything else in their brains or lives. Of course it’s true that servants’ hands are dry and they work long hours and have to empty chamber pots—but. I don’t know. People with crappy jobs still tell jokes and have emotional lives? Being poor really, really sucks but it doesn’t mean it’s all you think about and that you are 100% miserable 24/7? People are not defined solely by their tragedies?
It’s complicated, but I just feel like, there is a lot of that story out there. The Dickensian “those poor wretched people!” story. I would rather read and write a different kind of story, where bad stuff happens and also people live and laugh and gossip and have work drama and love each other and are sometimes deliriously happy.
That’s why I’m a romance writer, I guess.
So since I didn’t do it in my book, this is my place to really get in there and wallow in what a truly crappy job being a servant was.
I remember as a little kid asking my mom about women’s rights after watching Mary Poppins. She told me that back when many married women didn’t work or have their own bank accounts, they were dependent on their husbands. So you had to hope that your husband was nice, because if he was it could be okay, but if he was mean, there wasn’t a lot you could do about it.
Being a servant was a lot like that. If you had a nice boss, it could be okay. If you didn’t, you were completely screwed. Highlights:
1. The hours. Servants were expected to work from early in the morning to late at night. There was no part of the day that was designated as free time or after work. If their boss needed something in the middle of the night, they’d be woken up.
If I had a nickel for every time I have read a complaint about maids reading novels when they should be working, I would be rich! But when CAN they read novels, then? They are working ALL THE TIME.
They were rarely allowed to have guests, even in the kitchen, so for many servants their only opportunity for a social life outside the home was on their time off, which was a half-day once a week at best and sometimes not even that. (Plus Sunday morning for church in some households.)
Many servants in this time period were maids-of-all-work, meaning they were the only servants a family had. I can’t imagine how lonely that must have been.
2. Employers felt entitled to dictate everything about their servants’ lives. Many female servants were not allowed to date (though of course making a rule is not always the same as being able to enforce it). And they were watched obsessively for any signs of a love life or, God forbid, pregnancy.
Some employers also didn’t even like servants leaving the house! For example, in 1821 John Skinner wrote that he “made it a rule…to state [to new servants] my dislike of them going into the village,” though he did say he would allow them to “go home to their friends, or occasionally see them here”.
Bridget Hill writes in Servants: English Domestics in the Eighteenth Century (a really great resource) that “So great was the desire of some masters to keep their servants at home that they locked them in when they went out. So when Mr. Goodwin, the minister at Tankersley, went to church, he locked his maid and two children in the house.”
Remember that Regency locks usually worked differently than modern ones: they were key-and-keyhole locks, where you could lock them, put the key in your pocket, and walk away, and the door would be locked from both sides. No fire codes here!
3. Which leads to…no privacy. Outside of country estates with dedicated servants’ quarters or wings (and I don’t think they were entirely universal at country houses, even, in this time period), servants could not count on having a bed, let alone a room to themselves. They might sleep in closets, on landings, or even on the kitchen floor. Their rooms didn’t always have doors. And as Hill notes, “wherever their quarters were, something that was common to them all was that they could rarely be locked.” If there was a key, housekeepers or employers kept it, not the servants themselves.
4. The above quote from Hill is from a chapter titled “The Sexual Vulnerability and Sexuality of Female Domestic Servants.” I feel like I don’t even really need to say more. Servants who were harassed or assaulted had very little recourse and were likely to find themselves out of a job if they spoke up. They were also almost certain to find themselves out of a job if they got pregnant.
(Though this problem affected female servants disproportionately, of course it wasn’t limited to them.)
5. Have I mentioned that employers really, really did not want their servants to get pregnant? They often couched this in terms of virtue, respectability, morality, etc. but the truth is that employers also did not want their servants to get married, because either way the pregnancy was inconvenient for them. Hill writes:
“Marriages between fellow servants were fraught with difficulties. On the whole few masters seem to have employed married couples as servants. If two servants within the same household wanted to marry custom dictated they ask for the permission of their master—and such permission could be withheld—or leave the household…Employers were apprehensive that a married couple, particularly if they had children, would be as much concerned with their own family as their master’s. But if marriage between two servants was to have any chance of success the married couple needed to be employed in one household.”
6. You did not even always get paid! Hill writes that “Wages were frequently not paid on time. Indeed, in order that servants could pay ‘for anything missing’ it was recommended (by John Trusler in The London Advisor and Guide, 1790) that employers ‘keep part of their wages in hand’, and that ‘they should always be paid one half year under another, reserving half-a-year in hand.’” Trusler points out that servants could not legally be compelled to pay for broken items ‘unless it was so agreed on the hiring,’ but the fact is that many employers applied wage penalties (over and above lost time) for all kinds of infractions: breaking things, leaving before the agreed-on date, going home for the holidays, not going to church, badly done work, neglect, getting drunk, etc.
A servant whose claim for unpaid wages was under £10 could have their case heard by a magistrate very cheaply, but who knows how many servants were aware of this right or dared take advantage of it? A servant who was owed more presumably had to sue if they wanted to collect.
7. This will probably surprise no one, but women servants were paid far below men servants. Boswell wrote in 1791:
“I put a question to him [Dr. Johnson] upon a fact in common life, which he could not answer, nor have I found any one else who could. What is the reason that women servants, though obliged to be at the expense of purchasing their own clothes, have much lower wages than men servants, to whom a great proportion of that article is furnished, and when in fact our female house servants work much harder than the male?”
Good question, Mr. Boswell!
(Note: with the exception of footmen, etc. who wore livery, there were no uniforms for servants in this period. Sometimes female servants were provided with clothes or the fabric to make them, but it was less a matter of custom and more one of the employer’s discretion.)
For many female domestic servants, the goal was for it to be a “life-cycle job”, i.e. something she did in her teens and early twenties and then graduated out of, hopefully through marriage. But finding a life partner is never a guarantee, and it was especially difficult for a servant to 1) meet someone and 2) save for a dowry. So this didn’t always pan out—which sucked because domestic work was very physically demanding, and a woman’s wages might actually decrease as she aged, yet she could rarely afford to retire.
For workers in a great house like the ones owned by many Regency romance characters, service made more sense as a lifelong career: there were some opportunities for advancement (ladies’ maid, cook, housekeeper, upper housemaid, etc.) and it must have made the work much more tolerable long-term to have other servants to hang out with and to not have your employer breathing down your neck all the time.
On the other hand, specialized servants in a large house who did want to marry might find themselves at a disadvantage. Hill writes:
“There is a late eighteenth-century ‘penny-history’ in which Ned advises his friend, Harry, against marrying a chambermaid ‘for they bring nothing with them but a few old cloaths [sic] of their mistresses, and for housekeeping, few of them know anything of it; for they can hardly make a pudding or a pye, neither can they spin, nor knit, nor wash, except it be a few laces to make themselves fine withal.’”
6. The Regency was one of the last stages in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I’m not trying to toot feudalism’s horn here. But every crappy economic system is unique, and one aspect of feudalism was that in it, the model of “service” was (at least theoretically) understood to be one of mutual rights and responsibilities. Noblesse oblige and all that. The capitalist model, of course, is one of contractual wage labor.
To illustrate how drastically things shifted: in the eighteenth century, “family” often still simply meant “household” and included apprentices, servants, etc. George Washington’s aides-de-camp, for example, were widely referred to as his “family,” because they traveled with him and were usually accommodated in the same house. As the Victorian era neared, the new ideals of hearth and home and “private life” meant that “family” began to refer only to those related by blood.
For servants who lived with their employers, this transition had numerous disadvantages, often with fewer corresponding gains in independence than, say, a factory worker. Employers resented servants because their presence inherently compromised precious privacy (one reason, in tandem with technological advances like bell-pulls that could call servants from another part of the house, for the increase in designated servants’ quarters).
Class barriers hardened, and as the perceived gulf between employer and employee widened, intimacy between servants and employers came to be seen as “dangerous”, especially to impressionable children.
And even as their own loyalty to servants shrank (with less perceived obligation to provide for sick or old servants, for example), employers bitterly resented the loss of servants’ loyalty and gratitude. As Hill says, “[T]heir concern about servants spying on them and gossiping became almost paranoid.”
“The servant problem” is obsessively discussed in eighteenth century and frankly it makes me gag every time. Let me tell you, I had a really hard time finding images for this post that weren’t either A) condescending caricature/satire, B) racist, C) porn, or D) all of the above.
You know what, rich Regency people? If you don’t like it, do your own damn laundry!
7. And on top of all that which is specific to servants, there are still all the general problems of non-unionized labor, and that in a time before labor laws of any kind: no pension, no health insurance, no job security, no OSHA, no limit on working hours, etc., etc.!