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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

28 April 2008

Privacy -- or the lack thereof

Of all the ways in which life in Regency England differs from my own, none strikes me more than the issue of personal privacy.

Imagine having someone within earshot, if not within sight, every moment of the day. Large country houses were large and somewhat isolated, but there were hordes of servants in the house and on the estate, and the duties of those servants required constant intrusions into the privacy of their masters and mistresses. Servants were trained to walk into rooms without knocking. Even at night, they were close at hand. During most of the 18th century, most valets slept in a small room just off the master's dressing room, and ladies' maids slept in a room adjacent to the lady's bedroom.

This shifted a bit at the turn of the century, as improvements in the bell pull allowed servants to be housed on a separate floor. But even if the servants were sleeping far removed from their betters, they were still present in the bedrooms of their masters and mistresses from before dawn until well after dark. Early each morning, a servant would enter each room – long before the occupant awakened – to open the curtains, light the fires, and bring water for the washstand. A little later, different servants would arrive with chocolate or tea and help their employers dress for the day. During the day, servants would enter the room to air the bed, change the sheets, stoke the fires, replenish coal, and tend the lamps. All this coming and going meant that no one could be assured of privacy at any particular time in any room of the house.

It doesn't take a dirty mind to imagine the sorts of domestic dramas that must have played out in front of the watching eyes of the servants. Servants knew everything – when the ladies of the house had their courses, when beds were shared or not slept in, when clothes were torn or undergarments needed washed. Chances are that one of the first people to know when a young lady lost her virginity was her maid. Would years of service lead her to help her mistress cover up the misdeed? Or would she be tempted to blackmail?

When I'm brainstorming a new plot, I always wonder what role the servants might have played in the lives of the hero and heroine. Was the valet an enemy? The maid a confidant? Did the footman willingly run billets-doux to a lover, or was he firmly in the pocket of the master? In my current work-in-progress, I think the heroine is going to be betrayed by her maid – a woman who's motivated by economic concerns to throw her lot in with the master.

And what of all those interruptions into private reverie? Even knowing my husband is in the house with me, I still give a start when I hear him close a door. Did the mistress of the estate jump when the door to her dressing room opened and a maid came in to open the drapes, light the fire, or remove the chamber pot? Or did she blithely continue whatever activity she was in the midst of, as though the maid was of no consequence? It's difficult for me to imagine, but perhaps such intrusions were considered a normal part of life. What do you think?

13 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Doreen, thanks for so eloquently describing the minutiae of daily life at the time; it's an excellent reminder of how omnipresent the servants were. And you pose a lot of terrific and extremely plausible scenarios.

My first thought on reading your post was Jane Austen shoving her pages under the equivalent of a placemat so people wouldn't know what she was up to -- not just what she was writing, but that she was writing.

And, back to your post, I think of servants costing a master significantly less per annum than a horse, so no wonder they might have sided with their employer rather than their young charge, when push came to shove.

4:35 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Doreen, great post. I'm reminded of the shock Marie Antoinette suffered when she arrived in France and realized just how much of her life was going to be on display, from the myriad of noble women who helped her dress to the common people who were allowed in Versailles to watch the King and Queen eat dinner.

I think that most people would have treated their servents as part of the furniture, unless of course, it was a wife who was unused to having so many servants marrying into a family where they were everywhere. Although I have read of aristocratic women who were close to their maids, beyond just giving them cast off clothing.

Even Consuelo Vanderbilt found living at Blenheim daunting and the Vanderbilts had a plethora of servants.

5:19 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Like you, Doreen, in my books I am always aware of the presence of servants in the household and what relationship they have with their masters and mistresses. I think it varies as much as the households do.

Overall, I expect that it was what life was and not a source of distress unless one came into the world from another one -- good food for thought as my next book which involves that situation.

Thanks for opening up the discussion.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Great post, Doreen. I'm reminded of when my son was a teaching assistant for the brilliant Sharon Marcus at Columbia, and the paper assignment was (loosely paraphrased): "Discuss the role of servants in Pride and Prejudice. And if you're saying 'what servants?' read the novel again before you begin."

For those of you who are going to RWA National this summer, be sure to check out Janet Mullany's workshop "Doddering Butlers, Pert Housemaids, and Faithful Retainers: Busting the Servant Myths" -- Saturday 12:45 pm. It'll be introduced by yours truly -- who'll also be listening breathlessly.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks, Pam, that's one workshop I won't want to miss. And great topic for a paper. Now I have to go back and read P&P! I was however aware of the servants more in the recent Sense & Sensibility.

8:53 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Wonderful post, Doreen. The servants-always-present scenario is something I have wondered about, exactly as you describe.

I think the lack of privacy would have driven me nuts, even if I were a lady and servants in the house was a situation I had grown up with.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Lawrence Stone's Broken Lives discusses cases of alleged infidelity where servants were called to testify against their mistresses -- I remember the ones where they did so eagerly, though there may have been others (anybody remember?)

And my Mary Penley in The Slightest Provocation is, in part, a guilty self-portrait, of how I imagine I might be able to learn to take it for granted if there was always someone to clean up after me.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Jane Digby's servants testified against her for her infidelties if I'm not mistaken when her husband divorced her in the 1820's. Mary Lovell mentions it in her biography of Jane.

Did anyone watch Regency House Party and Manor House? I thought it was interesting to see how modern men and women dealt with running a large house with servants. Loved the servants rebelling in Manor House, which probably would never have happened in real life.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Thanks, everyone. I'm glad you enjoyed my post.

There is a book I can't locate called "the road to divorce 1750-1850" or something similar that has detailed testimony of servants who testified in divorce/adultery cases. I remember that there were very few such cases during the Regency, but quite a few before and in the Victorian period.

Interestingly, some of the servants blatantly lied and claimed to have no inkling of infidelity. If I recall correctly, the author said that there was a lot of turnover of servants, with most staying less than four years, so there was little loyalty to the master. Often the servants simply found it distasteful to discuss such things in public.

Doreen

1:24 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Great blog Doreen! And an interesting point to ponder. I am a very private person and as I have lived alone since my dh died (1993)I think I would go nuts if I had these practically invisible people slipping around me.

I think it would be difficult if you were not born and raised to it. As to servants being reluctant to testify against their employers I think some of the third and fourth generation retainers would actually find it distasteful and beneath them to air the family dirty laundry.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I believe that Broken Lives is the juicy, case-study one, and
The Road to Divorce
has more to do with legalities. Both by Lawrence Stone.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I love Broken Lives. There's another one called Sex in Georgian England that's good too. It's fascinating to see how these relationships played out (esp the aspect of the mistress being at her servants' mercy should they have anything to hold over her).

10:19 AM  
Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

The servants testified against Lady Mordaunt during her divorce case. They apparently disliked she and her antics so much, they kept diaries of her visits with her lovers and their visits to her whilst her husband was away. I can't recall where I read it, but an American heiress, I believe, was given the cold shoulder by the servants of the house because she wasn't accustomed to British ways of treating servants.

But I lol'd when watching Manor House two weeks ago. The servants were a hoot--though it was highly unlikely Manderston was that understaffed when the family lived there.

8:03 PM  

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