Persuasions #10, 1988                                                                                                            Pages 104-116


Seen But Not Heard:

Servants in Jane Austen’s England



Department of English, University of Victoria, Victoria, B.C.


Only a handful of the many, many servants in Jane Austen’s novels actually speak.  Sometimes their words are reported by someone else, but rarely do they say anything for themselves, and certainly never anything about themselves.  The intimate nature of servants’ duties meant that they witnessed most of what went on: they saw their masters and mistresses in dress and undress, in fair and foul temper; they watched, worried, rejoiced, criticized, despised or admired along with them.  Yet they never really participated.  The servants hover and cluster in Jane’s plots like movie extras, filling the background spaces, with hardly a recognizable face among them, absolutely necessary, almost always dumb.

This is not unusual.  The lack of presentation in literature of ordinary, working folk has long been recognized.  Servants, indeed, are luckier than most others of their class in that, however marginally, they are at least present.  Servants occur in large numbers across a great range of literature, their roles as low as their class origins – comic relief, extensions or reflections of their masters and mistresses, useful cardboard figures to further the plot.  Jane’s servants merely conform in this regard, although they are also peculiarly of their time and place in being so silent.  Fictional servants are sometimes talkative and cheeky, but in Britain by the nineteenth century servants have stopped answering back.  Silence was the rule, in life as well as in literature.

In a popular book dealing with the servant problem, Domestic Management, the author, Dr. Trusler, makes that quite clear.  “No servant should either sing, whistle, or talk loud, in the hearing of any of his master’s family, nor make any other noise about the house ….  A servant should neither blow his nose or spit in his master’s presence; and, if possible, neither sneeze nor cough.”  I became rather attached to the snappish Dr. Trusler, largely because he proceeds by negatives.  “Don’t do this,” he says, “Don’t do that,” and thereby opens up undreamt-of possibilities: “men and maids [should not] romp in the kitchen, unless they mean that the tables and chairs should not have more than three legs each.”  Boys should not write “their names on the ceiling of the hall of kitchen with smoke of the candle.”

Thinking of the servants in Jane’s novels, endlessly condemned to open doors and shutters, carry messages, light fires, mend slits in dresses, look after rambunctious children, wait at table, drive carriages, arrange hair, attend their masters and mistresses on every possible occasion, I take a sly pleasure in imagining them whooping it up in the kitchen and breaking the furniture.

That is partly because I am endowed with the usual twentieth century democratic sensibilities, of course, including a belief in minority rights and equal opportunity.  I should probably have been out there encouraging Jane’s servants to go on strike – not for pay, but for lines, for a decent role, for recognition.

Do you remember when, after an absence of seven years, Fanny Price meets her beloved brother William at Mansfield Park?  The “first minutes of exquisite feeling had no interruption and no witnesses, unless the servants chiefly intent upon opening the proper doors could be counted as such.”  That’s what servants generally are: non-witnesses, non-people.

As another example, consider Anne Elliot – of all Jane’s heroines surely the model of right-thinking – and Nurse Rooke.  Mrs. Rooke attends on Anne’s friend Mrs. Smith, who says of her that “besides nursing me most admirably, [she] has really proved an invaluable acquaintance,” further, that she is “a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman.”  On one occasion, Mrs. Smith asks Anne:


“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.”


Anne did not notice that someone she had never seen before was opening the door, nor does she exhibit any curiosity about Nurse Rooke.  Nurse Rooke is “no-one in particular”; just a servant.  Even the nicest people looked right through you.

Introduce yourself, Nurse Rooke, I say, let Anne know you are there, even if you must curtsey as you do it.  Struggle against the passive or you’ll be eliminated, I want to advise Emma’s maid, when I read, “The hair was curled and the maid sent away.”  In this spirit, I shall be providing a life for Jane’s servants, crossing and re-crossing the boundaries between fact and fiction, between real life and its representation in literature.

In an age like ours, in which so much value is placed upon independence and self-sufficiency, the idea of being a servant, and, especially, being content to be a servant is unappealing, distasteful even.  Had they no ambition?  Were they quite spineless?  Samuel and Sarah Adams, who, after a combined total of fifty years in service, wrote The Complete Servant, “a practical guide to the Peculiar Duties and Business of all descriptions of servants, from the Housekeeper to the Servant of all-Work, and from the Land Steward to the Foot-Boy,” explain it thus:


The supreme Lord of the universe has, in his wisdom, rendered the various conditions of mankind necessary to our individual happiness: – some are rich, others poor – some are masters, and others servants.  – Subordination, indeed, attaches to your rank in life, but not disgrace.  All men are servants in different degrees.


Emphasizing that it is no disgrace to be a servant instantly suggests, of course, that someone might have thought it was.  Still, generally speaking, contentment in that station of life in which God had seen fit to place you was a reality and not just a pious platitude.  The only suggestion we have in Jane’s novels of discontent is the sentence in Mansfield Park which I still find welcome (and which sparked my first novel) that the scene-painter had “made five of the under-servants idle and dissatisfied.”

I’m not sure that I had ever particularly noticed the servants till then.  After that I realized they were everywhere.  Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters, treated in such a niggardly way by the John Dashwoods, can still afford two maids and a man; even the humble Bateses have Patty.  Anne Elliot’s Mrs. Smith is a “poor, infirm, helpless widow” “living in a very humble way, unable to afford herself the comfort of a servant,” and Mrs. Smith is an object of the utmost pity.  To be without a servant is to be poor indeed.

Servants’ duties in large households were carefully defined.  At the top of the hierarchy were butler and housekeeper, below them, in descending rank, on the female side, cook, lady’s maid, head nurse, then nursery maids, housemaids upper and under, kitchen maid, laundry maid, dairy maid, scullion.  On the male side, valet, coachman, footmen, grooms.  Important outside staff included steward, bailiff, gamekeeper and gardener, and withindoors there was also that poor female of anomalous rank, the governess.  I hardly need to add that this list only represents an average.  The individual family employed whom it needed, made the rules, created the atmosphere, made the servants’ lives more or less bearable in hundreds of different ways.

General Tilney of Northanger Abbey, not the most lovable of men, endears himself to me because he has renovated “the ancient kitchen of the convent, rich in the massy walls and smoke of former days, and in the stoves and hot closets of the present … every modern invention to facilitate the labour of the cooks, had been adopted within this, their spacious theatre.”  Such careful interest was uncommon.  In 1819 Charles Sylvester asserted: “Nothing can be more preposterous and inappropriate than the prevailing construction and management of a gentleman’s kitchen.”  The reason the kitchen was so far from the dining-room was the smells.  English country-houses continued to spit-roast before open fires, and although the Adamses say much (all sounding unappetizing) about boiling, the conditions in the kitchen must have made great demands on the temper: heat, smoke (the kitchen smoked at Barton Cottage), lack of ventilation.  Records of temperamental cooks in memoirs and reminiscences are legion.  We don’t hear of them in the novels, but in the Letters Jane does refer to Cook being always “tried by a wet season” but not “lamenting much yet.”

The only cook favoured with a name in the novels is, not surprisingly, Serle at Hartfield.  Despite Mr. Woodhouse’s devotion to Serle –  “I would not recommend an egg boiled by anyone else” – I am sure it would have been preferable to work at Northanger.  One might have had to keep out of General Tilney’s way, but Mr. Woodhouse’s anxiety about under-cooked asparagus and over-salted pork suggest a gastronomic taste fit to break the spirit of any self-respecting cook.

Serle was probably, like most cooks, female.  Although a man cook, “generally a foreigner,” is “now a requisite member in the establishment of a man of fashion,” as the Adamses explain, men cooks are kept in only about 300-400 great and wealthy families and about 40-50 London hotels.  This throws light upon Mrs. Bennet’s elaborately sarcastic reference to Darcy: “even he acknowledged that the partridges were remarkably well done; and I suppose he has two or three French cooks at least.”  If a French cook were kept, he was well paid: the man cook is top of the Adamses’ wage scale at 80 guineas, followed by the Head Gamekeeper at 70.

Cook was second to housekeeper, except in her own domain, the kitchen.  Housekeeper and butler were equal in status but not in pay.  On the Adamses’ scale, 50 guineas is suggested for the butler, only 24 for the housekeeper.  Many women were in domestic service – indeed, later in the century, the overwhelming majority of more than a million servants in England was female – but the number of male servants in a household was still a mark of rank and wealth: a tax on male servants of one guinea per head had been introduced in 1777, and by 1808, if there were more than eleven male servants in the household, the tax on each was £7 (by comparison, the annual wage of a dairy maid was 8 guineas).

In the novels housekeepers are the class of servant most often given lines, names, sometimes even a hint of character: Mrs. Whitaker at Sotherton, Mrs. Hill at Longbourn, Mrs. Hodges at Donwell Abbey, Mrs. Reynolds at Pemberley.  We encounter Mrs. Nicholls of Netherfield hurrying to the butcher, and feeling relieved that there are “three couple of ducks just fit to be killed” because the Bingleys’ return is imminent.  When Mrs. Bennet is alarmed at the possibility of Mr. Bingley coming to dine – “good Lord! how unlucky! there is not a bit of fish to be got today” – her first instruction is “Lydia, my love, ring the bell.  I must speak to Hill this moment.”  Shopping was one of the housekeeper’s chief responsibilities.  In addition, she oversaw the female servants, kept an inventory of the furniture, linen and plate, and numbered and accounted for items such as house-cloths and knife-cloths.  The mark of her distinction as highest-ranking female servant was that she had a room of her own.  Next to it, and in her charge, was the store-room, where dried fruits, spices, condiments, soap, candles, starch, even supplies of writing-paper were kept.  And also of course, “arrowroot of very superior quality” such as is despatched by Emma, after consultation with her housekeeper, to Jane Fairfax when she is ill.

The recipes the Adamses provide for the housekeeper include liquorice lozenges, whipped syllabub, muffins, gingerbread, sauerkraut, piccalilli, gilliflower wine, turnip wine, tooth powder, a wash for sunburnt faces, macouba snuff, spruce beer, liquid magnesia and portable lemonade.  It was also often her task to make “the best pastry.”  Mrs. Hodges at Donwell Abbey is “quite displeased” when Mr. Knightley gives away the last of his apples.  “She could not bear that her master should not be able to have another apple-tart this spring.”  Housekeepers do assert themselves mildly on the odd occasion.  “Mrs. Hodges would be cross sometimes …, ” and Jane in the Letters shows herself wary of offence.  “It is rather impertinent to suggest any household care to a housekeeper, but I just venture to say that the coffee-mill will be wanted every day.”

The life of a housekeeper, as delineated in the novels, is not without its pleasures.  Mrs. Whitaker of Sotherton keeps pheasants (as Mrs. Norris discovers to her advantage) and has time to talk to the visitors.  The housekeeper was also in charge when the family was not in residence.  For although it was customary, if the family owned more than one house, for the servants to travel with them, the housekeeper was usually permanently resident in one place.  At such times, she and the skeleton staff were provided with “board wages,” and she was responsible for escorting visitors on guided tours of the house.

When Mrs. Reynolds conducts Lizzy and the Gardiners around Pemberley, she actually participates in the conversation for three pages (a record).  Lizzy discovers the housekeeper to be “a respectable-looking, elderly woman, much less fine, and more civil, than she had any notion of finding her.”  At first taken aback by the praise Mrs. Reynolds lavishes on Mr. Darcy, Lizzy later reflects that “it was of no trifling nature.  What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant?” This is not taken for granted, notice, it is a point of view Lizzy has to work out – and she probably wouldn’t have bothered if what Mrs. Reynolds said didn’t coincide with her own inclinations.

Mrs. Gardiner, less in the know, is more dismissive: “the good lady who showed us the house did give him a most flaming character.  I could hardly help laughing aloud sometimes.  But he is a liberal master, I suppose, and that in the eye of a servant comprehends every virtue.”  A servant’s judgement, in other words, is governed exclusively by self-interest.  Later, as they all begin to like Darcy more, “there was … an interest … in believing the housekeeper; and they soon became sensible, that the authority of a servant who had known him since he was four years old, and whose manners indicated respectability, was not to be hastily rejected.”

Jane separates herself from Lizzy and Mrs. Gardiner here, but the same cautious attitude is discernible towards Mrs. Hill of Longbourn.  The family knows that Mrs. Bennet, distraught after Lydia’s elopement, has not “prudence enough to hold her tongue before the servants, while they waited at table.”  They therefore “judged it better that one only of the household, and one whom they could most trust” – that is, Mrs. Hill – look after her.  Instead of “completely trust,” or “upon whose discretion they could rely,” the phrase is qualified: “whom they could most trust.”

Later, when Mrs. Bennet summons her instantly to report, “My dear Hill, have you heard the good news?  Miss Lydia is going to be married; and you shall all have a bowl of punch, to make merry at her wedding,” Elizabeth only thinks to deplore her mother’s lack of restraint.  Yet Mrs. Hill has borne nobly with Mrs. Bennet’s lamentations and has, at the family’s request, been closest to her throughout this difficult time.  Come Miss Lizzy, I say, never mind your mother’s failings, think of what is due to the good Mrs. Hill.

An interesting assumption in Pride & Prejudice is that it is possible to keep Lydia’s disgrace a secret from the other servants.  William Tayler, a real footman who kept a diary (notable for its good sense if not its spelling) would have shaken his head at that.


I heared of a young Lady not long agoe in Devonshire that was courted by a gentleman and was to of been married to him, but she, poor thing, proved in the famly way and he was blackguard enough to leave her before the wedding took place.  This matter was kept a secret and her father took her abroad but took no servants nor no one with them that could bring back any news with them, but these things never escape the eys and ears of servants.  These matters are shore to be known by them.


As Thackeray observed about the footman in Pendennis, “Nothing is a secret.  Take it as a rule that John knows everything.”

Jane would probably allow that he might but shouldn’t.  Throughout the novels, she is consistently of the opinion that too much intimacy with servants is a bad thing.  It is all right to show the baby to the housekeeper, as Charlotte Palmer does when she returns to Cleveland, but Lydia oversteps the mark – as Lydia always does –when she goes “after dinner to shew her ring and boast of being married, to Mrs. Hill and the two housemaids.”  So does Mrs. Jennings, in Sense & Sensibility, when, in order to satisfy her curiosity as to where exactly Marianne and Willoughby have gone, she makes “her own woman enquire of Mr. Willoughby’s groom.”

The novel in which servants have the highest profile is Mansfield Park.  For that we have to thank Mrs. Norris.  Dislike her as I may, I am grateful for that.  Her prying, officious ways make us pay them attention.  She reports how she has taken to task the son of the estate carpenter, Christopher Jackson.


“I hate such encroaching people (the Jacksons are very encroaching, I have always said so, – just the sort of people to get all they can.)  I said to the boy directly – (a great lubberly boy of ten years old you know, who ought to be ashamed of himself,) I’ll take the boards to your father, Dick; so get you home again as fast as you can.   – The boy looked very silly and turned away without offering a word, for I believe I might speak pretty sharp; and I dare say it will cure him of coming marauding about the house for one while, – I hate such greediness – so good as your father is to the family, employing the man all the year round!”


Suddenly our sympathy is aroused; we are aware of little Dick Jackson, gangly, growing like a weed and no doubt very hungry, hanging around the servants’ hall, only to have his hopes of a free lunch thwarted.

It is Baddeley, the butler in Mansfield Park, to whom is allotted the singular pleasure of vanquishing Mrs. Norris, when she insists that it cannot be Fanny whom Sir Thomas wishes to see:


“It is me, Baddeley, you mean; I am coming this moment.  You mean me, Baddeley, I am sure; Sir Thomas wants me, not Miss Price.”

But Baddeley was stout.  “No, Ma’am, it is Miss Price, I am certain of its being Miss Price.”  And there was a half smile with the words which meant, “I do not think YOU would answer the purpose at all.”


That half smile, as a friend of mine pointed out, is the single occasion in the novels on which criticism is levelled by a servant at his betters.

As well as heading daily “the solemn procession … of tea-board, urn and cake-bearers,” Baddeley would have looked after the cellar, superintended the bottling of wine and the brewing of beer, kept the plate under lock and key and supervised dinner from the sideboard, where he would hand wine.  The Adamses also say that a butler ought to be able to write a fine hand and in the way of perquisites may expect his master’s cast-off clothes, pieces of wax candle, the second-hand cards, compliments on paying tradesman’s bills, and Christmas boxes and wine for his own use.  They include instructions on such matters as how to put out a fire in the chimney.  It is, you will remember, one of Baddeley’s “noble fires” which Mrs. Norris “was entirely taken up ... in fresh arranging and injuring.”

Several hints suggest that Sir Thomas is close to Baddeley, and one reason may be that, as the Adamses explain, the first duty of the butler “where no valet is kept is to manage and arrange his master’s clothes, carry them to his dressing-room, boots and shoes being cleaned by footman or under-butler.”  Jane does not use the term “valet” so far as I know, and distinguishes the function only by the phrase “his own man.”  The only gentleman in Jane’s novels whom we know to have a valet is Sir Walter Elliot and, since vanity was “the beginning and the end” of Sir Walter’s character, one can reasonably infer that, as far as Jane was concerned, a gentleman’s possessing a personal servant smacked of it too.

The importance of the coachman may be gauged by Mr. Woodhouse’s frequent and solicitous references to James.  Wilcox, the old coachman at Mansfield Park, plagued with rheumatics, as were many who sat on the box, is equally “steady” (a term of great approval).  Maria Bertram calls Wilcox “a stupid old fellow” who “does not know how to drive.”  But Maria no doubt hankers after the fast and stylish handling of a coach and four which young Regency bucks prided themselves upon.  Everyone else regards Wilcox with great affection.  Mrs. Norris refers to his “great love and kindness,” and his anxiety lest the narrow lanes on the way to Sotherton will scratch the varnish of the carriage.

It is interesting that, although there are many more references to James at Hartfield, we know less about him than we do about Wilcox.  James exists only as an expression of Mr. Woodhouse’s personality.  But if you want to know what James, or Wilcox looked like, I offer the Adamses’ affectionate description: “Every genuine coachman has his characteristic costume.  His flaxen curls or wig, his low cocked hat, his plush breeches, and his benjamin surtout, his clothes … well brushed, and the lace and buttons in a state of high polish.”

The ultimate authority over the inside servants belonged, naturally, to the lady of the house.  Some took this duty more seriously than others: some had more aptitude.  One of the telltale signs of poor management is too much talk about the servant problem.  Poor Mrs. Price gets off on this subject as soon as Fanny arrives in Portsmouth: “the shocking character of all the Portsmouth servants, of whom she believed her own two were the very worst, engrossed her completely.  The Bertrams were all forgotten in detailing the faults of Rebecca.”  In Persuasion the mild animosity between the elder Mrs. Musgrove and her daughter-in-law is expressed through their bickering about servants, notably Jemima, Mary’s nursery-maid, conducted – unfortunately for her – via Anne.  Mary tells Anne that her mother-in-law’s upper house-maid and laundry-maid “are gadding about the village all day long.  I meet them wherever I go; and I declare, I never go twice into my nursery without seeing something of them.  If Jemima were not the trustiest, steadiest creature in the world, it would be enough to spoil her, for she tells me, they are always tempting her to take a walk with them.”  The elder Mrs. Musgrove, for her part, confides: “I have no very good opinion of Mrs. Charles’s nursery-maid: I hear strange stories of her; she is always upon the gad: and from my own knowledge, I can declare, she is such a fine-dressing lady, that she is enough to ruin any servants she comes near.”

Servants are here, as elsewhere, no more than sounding boards for their employers’ characters.  We never have an objective judgement of Jemima, for instance, any more than we are ever given an idea of James the coachman’s personality.  It is Mary Musgrove’s superficiality and selfishness we deplore when she will go out, although her little son is sick.  “Jemima is so careful!” she says (which we already have reason to doubt); “And she could send us word every hour how he was.”

From the repeated insistence on the necessity for masters and mistresses to take responsibility, one must infer its converse: that servants as a class lack sufficient intelligence or devotion to do so.  Tom Bertram “left by himself … to the comforts of sickness and solitude, and the attendance only of servants” rapidly declined into a “dangerous illness.”  It is a sadly limited assumption, and one which the actions of individual servants, both real and fictional (think of the Musgroves’ old nursery maid, Sarah, who is so delighted to “go and help nurse dear Miss Louisa”) frequently belie.

The problems the lady of the house might encounter with maids like Jemima are wonderfully suggested by the rules for the management of the household compiled in her day-book in 1814 by Lady Hippisley, wife of Sir John Cox Hippisley, of Ston Easton Park near Bath.


No maidservant is to go out without applying to the Housekeeper.

No strangers or other persons from the village to enter the kitchen, as they may wait in the archway until they obtain the answer required.

A small lanthorn to be given to each Maid, which she is to go about the house with, and use going to bed, and on no account deviate from this safe rule.  [The danger of fire, by the way, especially from candles, is regularly warned against.  The servant careless enough to set the house on fire was by law subject to a penalty of £100.]

The Maids are to have their allowance of Beer, a pint, served to them after Dinner, in the kitchen.

No washing allowed to the Maids excepting a certain proportion of those articles of cook’s dress supposed to be dirtied in her kitchen business.  A proper proportion of Soap and Starch to be allowed them by the Housekeeper to wash their clothes with themselves …

All wages to be paid 1st May and November.  No perquisites.

At ten o’clock the Kitchen fire and all lights are to be extinguished and all the Maids are to go to bed, except when one of the Housemaids is to set up to warm the beds: in such case they are set up alternately ….  The board wages at Ston Easton are … 6/- per week, with vegetables from the garden, Small Beer, Coal and Candle.


No butter is ever allowed “in the Hall” and tea is mentioned only at Christmas.  We are reminded of Mrs. Norris’s disapproval of the “quantity of butter and eggs that were regularly consumed” by the new incumbents of Mansfield Parsonage, and her delight in the discovery that the housekeeper at Sotherton does not allow wine at the second table.

Lower-ranking men servants wore livery, women did not.  Maids in cap and apron are a Victorian invention.  Livery was associated with wealth, rank and large numbers of servants.  Catherine Morland admires General Tilney’s fashionable chaise-and-four in which she travels to Northanger Abbey, and also the “postilions handsomely liveried, rising so regularly in their stirrups, and numerous outriders properly mounted.”  The livery the real John MacDonald, an eighteenth-century footman, wore when he was a boy postilion consisted of a green jacket with red cape, red waistcoat and a leather cap with the forepart lined with red morocco.  Livery colours were bright, showy and a means of identification.  Sir Walter Elliot, hearing of Admiral Croft’s being stationed in the East Indies assumes that “his face is about as orange as the cuffs and capes of my livery.”

Evidence suggests that in real life most male servants did not enjoy wearing livery.  Senior male servants did not have to, and John MacDonald records that on one occasion, when he “gave warning” (handed in his notice) his master offers the inducement “if you were to stay, I would soon put you out of livery.”  One fifteen-year-old boy was made to wear livery when he went into the service of a rector and his family.  This was snobbery and he hated it.  It “was a harlequin dress indeed,” he says; “I can only liken it to the costume worn by some of the attendants at a well-to-do circus.”  He was also mortified by the rector’s daughter’s uncomplimentary reference to the shape of his calves.  It was not uncommon to use padding to improve them.  No wonder livery was disliked.  In her Letters Jane refers to a servant who was offered employment by her aunt Leigh Perrot: “John Binns has been offered their place, but declines it – as she supposes, because he will not wear a Livery.”

Women wore no uniform, but this did not simplify matters.  The admonitions on female servants’ attire are numerous, Dr. Trusler’s remarks being typical: “being gaily drest, in gauze and ribbands, is always a blemish on her character, she will be thought to dress for the men more than for a place.”  When Mrs. Musgrove refers to Jemima as “fine-dressing” it is no term of approval.  Mrs. Norris is delighted to find that the housekeeper at Sotherton had “turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns.”  This again is a question of “fine dressing”; the accessibility of washable cotton was still so recent that the white gowns it made possible were reserved to the upper classes.  Ladies’ maids were criticized most often.  Traditionally, mistress handed down cast-offs to maid, but the practice was deplored in all books of instruction, since it encouraged servants to ape their betters.  Jonas Hanway advised selling the cast-offs rather than wearing them.

Ladies’ maids were certainly inclined to give themselves airs.  When Lady Bertram sends her maid, Chapman, to help Fanny dress: “Fanny felt her aunt’s attention almost as much as Lady Bertram or Mrs. Chapman could do themselves.”  When Jane Bennet is ill at Netherfield, Bingley’s sisters send enquiries via their maids: “the two elegant ladies who waited on his sisters.”  But these were a superior kind of servant, after all.  The author of Duties of a Lady’s Maid (1825) actually provides a guide to correct pronunciation, and a vocabulary of vulgarisms with their genteel equivalents.

The Adamses’ list of the duties of a servant or maid-of-all-work (Mrs. Jennings’ term is girl of all works) covers eight pages; since the position in effect combined the work which was done in a larger house by four or five people, the list is daunting.  “Slavey” first recorded in 1821, was the common and revealing slang term for such servants.  One real-life servant, a licensed victualler’s daughter whose memoirs were published in 1844, recalls that one of her mistresses, highly connected but penurious, did not feed her properly, but seeing the maid’s interest in the spinet said “she would teach me to play on it, if I would not eat so much as I could not learn with a full stomach.”  What a heart-rending choice!  Needless to say, the maid did not learn to play the spinet, although she was plainly intelligent, sensitive and longing to improve herself.

The maids-of-all-work we see in the novels suffer no unkindness.  Patty, who works for the Bateses, washes the kitchen, reports that the chimney needs sweeping, and “makes an excellent apple-dumpling.”  She is obviously the maid who, opening the door to Emma, “looked frightened and awkward.”  Clearly Patty isn’t a very good door-opener.  The problem with servants of all work as Dr. Trusler pointed out, was that they were “hourly in want of instruction.”  Rebecca certainly was, to judge from the inedible hashes and puddings she produced in Portsmouth, the “half-cleaned plates, and not half-cleaned knives and forks” “the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue” and the greasy bread and butter.

But some mistresses did not care to give instruction.  In her first job, at age thirteen, the licensed victualler’s daughter explains: “My mistress … made me nurse the child and do everything that was laborious; but all that required any art or knowledge, she not only would not let me do, but would send me out of the way, with the little boy, while she did it herself.  This was done that I should not leave her, or think myself qualified for a better place.  In the winter, water used to come into the cellars; and I have been bolted in there for hours together, till I have been nearly exhausted with pumping, and almost poisoned with the smell: however, I was well fed – living just the same as they did, and partaking of whatever they had; and I gained strength in proportion to my growth.”

There were generally two housemaids, upper and under, whose main duties were cleaning.  Catherine Morland hurries to her room to be alone after hearing news of her brother’s broken engagement with Isabella Thorpe, “but the housemaids were busy in it, and she was obliged to come down again.”  It is to be hoped they were doing a better job than those Dr. Trusler describes, who “in sweeping their mistress’s room, rather than stoop half a dozen times, will sweep everything before them, foul linen, handkerchiefs, pin-cushions, teaspoons, ribbons, slippers etc. into a corner, and pick them up in a lump.”  It sounds as if the mistress needs castigating more than the maids.  Trusler spends some time on the sensitive issue of how best to get chamber pot and contents downstairs without anyone seeing it, and reminds the maids that if they are “sweating in hot weather, whilst shaking the bed,” they must not “wipe their faces on the sheets.”  “This is as bad,” he continues, “as combing their heads in the room, with their ladies’ combs, washing with their soap, wiping with their towels, wearing their linen when thrown off, making free with thread, pins etc.; or making use of their master’s razors, to cut their corns.”  Trusler might well have called his book Domestic Mismanagement instead of Domestic Management.

More servants could read and write than one might expect.  In the Letters, Jane Austen mentions James for whom she intends to provide reading matter. “Unfortunately he has read the 1st Vol of Robinson Crusoe.  We have the Pickards newspaper however which I shall take care to lend him.”  The Adamses encouraged upper servants to teach lower ones their letters.  “Read the Bible to those who cannot [read], and, if you have time, teach them to read it for themselves.”  They also suggest that the multiplication and money tables should be “learnt by heart by all young servants in the evenings or when they have leisure.”  But schools expressly founded for servants did not always include reading and writing in the curriculum.  The object of writer and reformer Hannah More was “to train up the lower classes in habits of industry and piety.”  “I allow of no writing for the poor.”  Like many she believed that education merely bred discontent.

There were masters who encouraged talent in their servants.  Elizabeth Ratclyffe, a clockmaker’s daughter who was taken on by the Yorke family because her aunt was personal maid to Mrs. Yorke, had considerable artistic ability.  The Yorkes provided her with drawing materials and showed the best of her work to their friends.  That was in the mid-eighteenth century.  But the Yorkes were remarkable for their attitude towards servants for over two centuries.  Squire after squire wrote verses about the servants, and their house contains more portraits of servants than members of the family.  Talented servants would have been difficult to deal with under most circumstances; Jane very sensibly left them out of the novels.  The only hint of accomplishment is in Mansfield Park, where Fanny’s first ball is “built upon the acquisition of a violin player in the servants’ hall.”

The divide between master and servant, which increased during Jane’s lifetime, was bridged from time to time by passionate connexions between master – or even mistress – and servant.  Servants were warned by every commentator against the danger.  “Rich men are apt to presume on the humble condition of poor girls, to mark them as their prey” says Jonas Hanway.  “Unfortunately for the character of our country, it is considered to be a matter of little moment for a gentleman to ruin an unsuspecting and confiding girl,” comments the author of Duties of a Lady’s Maid.  Oddly enough from our point of view, both writers denounce marriage as strongly as seduction, because it was an unacceptable crossing of class lines.  William Tayler, our real servant, cuts through the hypocrisy:


Axidents of this kind happen to young wimin in high life as well as those in lower life, only the higher ones have a better chance of hiding these matters; I don’t meant to say these things happen with all the gentry, not by a very great deal.  It mite not happen once in twenty famleys, but it do happen and they are very fond of exposeing the lower classes when it takes place amongst them, therefore I think it’s only fair to expose the uppere classes in return.


How did servants themselves feel about their lot?  We have very little to go on, but William Tayler’s diary, which he kept for one year, is helpful.  On January 1, which was “ushered in with very cold frost and snow,” he “got up at half-past seven, cleaned the boys’ clothes and knives and lamps, got the parlour breakfast, lit my pantry fire [he says elsewhere that his pantry was a “very comfortable room”], cleared breakfast and washed it away, dressed myself, went to church, came back, got parlour lunch, had my own dinner, sit by the fire and read the Penny Magazine and opened the door when any visitors came.  At 4 o’clock had my tea, took the lamps and candles up into the drawing-room, shut the shutters, took glass, knives plate etc. into the dining-room, layed the cloth for dinner, took the dinner up at six o’clock, waited at dinner, brought the things down again at seven, washed them up, brought down the dessert, got ready the tea, took it up at eight o’clock, brought it down at half-past, washed up had my supper at nine, took down the lamps and candles at half past ten and went to bed at eleven.  All these things I have to do every day, therefore have I mentioned the whole that I might not have to mention them every day.”  Here and elsewhere it is clear that not only is his work tedious and repetitive but that he finds it so.

William Tayler was in a small household, fond of his mistress and well treated.  The family chooses not to go out because he has a bad cold, and he sits by the fire reading the history of England, “which always is to me very interesting.”  The next day, although he feels much better, his mistress still refuses to let him go out with the carriage.  This he finds irksome.  “I don’t like this being kept from going out on their account because I cannot have the face to go out in the evening on my own account.”  (Perhaps James was similarly suffocated by Mr. Woodhouse’s kindness.)  William lives in but he is married, although his wife lives elsewhere.  All through his brief journal, on a Sunday he will write, with a curious coy humour: “Have been to church or somewhere else” – meaning, to see his wife, about whom he is otherwise completely silent.

William regularly gets tips – at this time 5 p seems to be the norm; on his days off, he goes to the theatre to see Cinderella, hears a lecture on astronomy and visits the National Gallery and British Museum.  In Brighton he tries a little comparative religion by attending the Roman Catholic church and then the dissenting chapel.  He reads widely.  Although he is clearly fit for better things, William is a cheerful fellow and reasonably content, enjoying the annual muffin feast and other parties given by and for servants.  But the simile he rises to at the end of his year’s journal is revealing: “The life of a gentleman’s servant is something like that of a bird shut up in a cage.  The bird is well housed and well fed but is deprived of liberty.”

That is why, on the “uncommonly lovely” March day when the Prices take their airing on the ramparts in Portsmouth, unlike Mrs. Price, I rejoice at seeing Rebecca in the distance with a flower in her hat.  It’s a sign of freedom, independence, self-assertion.  I vote we present a flower to every one of the servants in Jane Austen’s novels.



Select Bibliography


Adams, Samuel and Sarah.  Complete Servant.  London: Knight & Lacey, 1825.


The Duties of a Lady’s Maid.  London: Bulcock, 1825.


Girouard, Mark.  Life in the English Country House.  Penguin, 1980 [1978].


Hanway, Jonas.  Advice from Farmer Trueman to his daughter Mary, upon her going to Service.  New ed. Pontefract, 1805 [1774].


Life of a Licensed Victualler’s Daughter, by Herself.  London: Saunders and O, 1844.


MacDonald, John.  Memoirs of an Eighteenth Century Footman.  London: Routledge, 1927.


Stuart, D.M.  The English Abigail.  London: Macmillan, 1946.


Tayler, William.  Diary of William Tayler, Footman, 1837.  Ed. Dorothy Wise.  London: St. Marylebone Society Publications, 1962.


Trusler, Dr. John.  Domestic Management.  New ed. Bath, 1819.


Turner, E.S.  What the Butler Saw.  London: Michael Joseph, 1962.


Waterson, Merlin.  The Servants’ Hall.  New York: Pantheon, 1980.


White, Henry.  The Record of My Life.  Cheltenham: The Author, 1889.


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