As an historical novelist writing about early 19th century aristocrats, servants inevitably play a large role in my books. Particularly valets and ladies' maids, who were intimately involved in their employers' day-to-day lives. I confess I find this a difficult relationship to juggle, and I often worry that my own modern-day sensibilities make me not do it justice. I want to be true to the period. On the other hand, there’s a wide range of behaviors in any era and people are people with the same emotions and compassion. It’s hard to believe there wouldn’t, at least in some cases, be a strong emotional bond between two people who spent as much time together as valets and ladies’ maids and their employers.
When I blogged about this on my own website, the post elicited some fascinating comments. Some pointed out that servants, particularly valets and ladies' maids, can often have interesting insights into the heroes and heroines and their situation. They are close observers of their employers' lives yet at at the same time a little removed. Our own Pam Rosenthal does this brilliantly with the heroine's maid in The Slightest Provocation. The maid is quite uncompromising about her mistress's faults and the heroine, though a very sympathetic person, is often quite blind to her maid's feelings.
Other readers pointed out that in a number of novels the heroes and their valets have served together in the military, and that these shared adventures can create a bond that breaks down class boundaries, at least to a degree. One wonderful example of this type of relationship is Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter, who served together in Word War I. Neither is the sort to verbalize his feelings, but the respect and affection between them is evident. My mom and I had a hero and his valet (his former batman) with a similar sort of relationship (less formal actually) in one of our Anthea Malcolm Regencies, A Touch of Scandal.
Lord Grantham and Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey have also served together in the military. One of the things I love about Downton Abbey is the subtlety and insight with which it handles the relationships between the family and the staff. You see the intolerable nature of the whole system and yet the earl and countess are decent people who genuinely care about their staff. Which makes the fact that it’s an intolerable system all the more interesting.
One of my favorite hero/valet relationships is Lord Damerel and his valet Marston in Georgette Heyer's Venetia. Neither has been in the military, but they have had a lot of adventures together all over the Continent. Their friendship is understated but evident, and to the disapproval of some of the other servants, neither behaves precisely like a typical master and valet. I love the scene at the end where Marston congratulates Damerel and Venetia on their betrothal. Marston is one of my favorite valet characters.
In my own series, the heroine Suzanne and her maid Blanca have a distinctly atypical relationship. Both are playing roles, just as Suzanne is playing a role in her marriage and her position as a diplomatic wife. While Suzanne and Blanca conform to the roles of aristocratic lady and lady's maid in public (including to a large degree in front of Suzanne's husband) in private they are friends. Both women can be honest with each other in ways they can’t even with the men in their lives. Which is fun for me to play with as the author. Suzanne's discomfort with the whole idea of servants (while at the same time she acknowledges the luxuries of the world she lives in) reflects some of my own discomfort.
Suzanne's husband Malcolm and his valet Addison have a much more conventional relationship, yet they too have shared adventures and they too are very fond of each other, though neither would put those feelings into words. Their relationship, as a reader pointed out in the comments on my website, is based “more on action than words.” Both are hemmed in by the roles they were born to (even though Malcolm in many ways disagrees with those roles). And then there’s the fact that neither is good at putting his feelings for anyone into words – including the women they love.
What are some of your favorite valet, lady's maid, and other servant characters in books? Writers, what challenges have you faced in writing about the "downstairs" world?