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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

13 January 2014

Servants: the cast of thousands

I've been thinking a lot about servants recently (ok, when I'm writing, they're something I think about a lot, because they're the [mostly] unseen characters that I have to keep track of in my head and pull out onto stage when necessary). I tend to have a LOT of servants running about the pages of my books, because that was the simply reality of the day. It took a lot of hands to run even a small house, let alone a grand estate. In 1901, the Earl of Derby had 37 live-in servants and required an additional 60 to attend to a party of 40, and the Duke of Devonshire requited more than 200 servants to look after a party of 50.

This past week, Meoskop had a bit of a rant about servants (or the lack there of) over on Love in the Margins, Lucy Lethbridge's book Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times landed on my porch, and Katharine Ashe tweeted "Alexis de Toqueville recounts a story told by Voltaire's secretary about Madame Duchatelet, who did not hesitate to undress in front of her servants, 'not considering it a proven fact that valets were men.'" (from Lynne Hunt, Inventing Human Rights).


There have also been some rather brilliant and widely divergent reviews of Jo Baker's Longbourn (Pride and Prejudice from a maid's point of view). SmartBitch Sarah didn't like it at all (and if you read my comment on the review, you'll see I was in full agreement with her), but former Hoyden Pam Rosenthal adored it.

I've never been a fan of the heroine and maid are BFF's trope. It doesn't seem realistic to me given what I've read about servants, how they were called upon in court cases (crim con trials especially!), and how by most accounts they tended to be more transitory than lifelong. In some households they didn't even bother to learn the servants name, instead using the same name for whatever servant held the job (so any man who was coachman was John and any woman who was the maid of all work was Mary, etc.). I tend to fall somewhere in the middle (as would have been likely given the transition the master/servant relationship was undergoing in the late 18thC; moving quickly towards the more formal and familiar one of the Victorian era).

Anyway, back to Lethbridge's book ... I'm not entirely sure it's going to earn a place on my overcrowded bookshelf (not because it isn't very, very good, but because it seems to concentrate mostly on the very late 19thC and early 20thC), but I am enjoying the anecdotes and I can see some of them making their way into my books in one form or another. My favorite so far: "Lord Curzon, whose intellect was regarded as one of the glories of the Empire, was so baffled by the challenge of opening a window in the bedroom of the country house in which he was staying (no servant being available so late at night), that he simply picked up a log from the grate and smashed the glass." 

2 Comments:

OpenID Sonya Heaney said...

Thanks for mentioning Longbourn – I’d not investigated that one. I’m not a fan of P&P fan fiction, but I might look into it, just to see what side of the fence I fall on!

The idea of historicals where the characters are ‘progressive’ because they don’t have servants annoys me. It’s modern Western thinking that doesn’t fit into the past. Hell, when my parents were stationed in India a few years ago servants came as part of their apartment lease!
I read an article about one HR writer who’d decided not to give her heroine a maid. Then she attended a seminar on Victorian clothing and realised it was impossible!

3:02 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I am not a fan of rewriting the rules of any era just to make for a "better show" whether it be a historical romance, historical fiction, a television show or a movie.

Certainly there were people and events and situations that were the exceptions to the rule. And they can be incredibly fun to write. But it takes even more skill to write a wonderful romance within the rules.

11:30 AM  

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