Philip V. Allingham has scanned and formatted for html the original article, which appeared in The Cornhill Magazine, 29 (1874): 298-307. Page breaks in brackets permit readers to refer to the print version.
Readers may wish to compare the rebuttal article also written by Linton.
f we grant that all laws and social conditions are the result of experiment and growth, and are therefore neither divine nor unelastic, we must regard certain class changes into which we are drifting as things to be accepted not fought against, and hold it wiser to make the best of them rather than the worst. The subversion of present arrangements is not necessarily unrighteous because subversive; it may be just the contrary; and such an entire revolution in the relations, say as those between masters and servants, probable in the near future, may be the expression of a higher sense of justice and sincerity of living than anything than anything we have hitherto put into practice. For the present at least we will suppose that it is.
No one is satisfied with things as they are. The masters resent the endeavour of servants to better their condition; the servants resent the endeavour of masters to keep them in the old inferior grooves; the first complain that servants are not what they were--forgetting to add that they themselves too are not what they were; the last regard their employers as their enemies ex officio, and their own position in the family as that of household Ishmaelites who must fight if they would not be oppressed. They also hold themselves as underpaid and generally ill-treated; and right or wrong they have determined to make better terms for themselves than those to which they have been bound heretofore.
In this age of strikes it seems strange that they have not had a strike in the kitchen as well as in the workshops. Perhaps the individual character of the service, the isolated position of the servants, the difficulties of meeting to combine--of fixing on a maximum of work and a minimum of wages--of arranging anything like arbitrary details--will always prevent an organized strike among them. This, however, may take place in a small community of level averages, or in large cities in houses of a certain calibre, where the servants are divided into superiors and subordinates, and where the work does not overlap in any department. The superior servants of such establishments as these can define their terms with more precision than is possible in small middle-class houses of two or three maids at most. It is in these very middle-class houses, however, where the sharpest pinch is felt and where the greatest changes have to come.
The middle class is comparatively a modern invention, very faintly representing the old burghers from which it sprang, and in nothing more than in its treatment of servants. If we want to see anything [298/299] analogous to our own former state of things, we must go abroad, notably to France. There we find the bonne treated with a friendliness, a familiarity, and granted personal privileges, unknown to us in England; and there service has consequently retained much of that old-world closeness of attachment which we have almost entirely lost at home. Here in England we have risen above our servants in all the material appliances life, and habits and manners have followed suit. So far from retaining anything like friendliness in our personal intercourse, a lady who "talks to her servants" is accounted wanting in propriety of feeling and false to the duty she owes her superior position. But we have sought to keep them in their old circumstance of inferiority while we have vacated our own kindly companionship. The whole gist of the strife lies in this one fact. The home character of domestic service has gone, and it is now merely a business without personal affection or individual ties, wherein time and labour are carried to the best market and sold for the highest price they will fetch, like any other commodities. But employers still speak of their servants as "dependants on their bounty," and as "eating their bread all the same," as when the castle table fed its hordes of pauper serfs bound to render the service of their lives in return for the coarse means of living liberally tossed to them and the dogs alike; and, though they have abandoned the patriarchal protection of masterhood, they still demand the devoted fidelity which was its return. In other words, they desire to be free from the obligations of proprietorship while retaining the submissive service of slaves.
Remains of the absolutism of slavery still linger in the conventional arrangements of domestic service. Only in quite exceptional houses are servants held to have any rights beyond the elemental ones of food, lodging, and wages. The mistress may of her own free grace grant privileges; that is another matter; but the kindest-hearted mistress treats it as an impertinence when her maids stipulate for rights, say in the matter of a fixed holiday beyond their portion of each Sunday in rotation. Servants are assumed to have no right to a holiday save at rare, indeterminate intervals. Yet the confined and incessant nature of their work would seem to make frequent breaks almost necessary to their well-being. A servant's work is never done potentially, if even actually. She is liable be rung up at all hours; her very meals are not secure from interruption; she has no time that is absolutely her own; and even her sleep is not sacred. In the dead of night something may be wanted, and she must get up to bring or to do it. Can there be a choice of agency between a delicate, consumptive maid, fatigued with her day's hard work, and a buxom, well-constituted lady, whose greatest exertion has been a drive in the park and the handing to her man a few cards to be left at friends' doors? The one is a servant, the other a lady; and physiogical conditions stand nowhere in the face of such divine distinctions. Any one who should propose that the heaviest end of the domestic stick should be laid on the stoutest shoulders, irrespective of condition, would [299/300] be laughed at as an impossible dreamer, if not condemned as an unrighteous one; and we might as well talk to a high caste Hindoo of the common humanity of a Brahmin and a Pariah as to English gentlefolks of the common humanity of a mistress and her maid. Personal fitness and natural rights have no place in the artificial arrangements of society, and domestic service is no exception to the rule.
Let us consider for a moment what the life of a servant is, forgetting all that we have been taught of the sacredness of present conditions. She lives under ground or just below the roof. Damp, drains, want of efficient ventilation, with the constant presence of draughts, surround her in winter; in summer these are supplemented by a furious fire for many hours in the day. Up under the tiles [i.e. in an attic room] she has the bleakest room in winter and the hottest in summer; but she is not allowed a fire to warm her chilly garret during the one--perhaps indeed her room has no fire-place--and she must gasp through the sweltering nights of the other as she best can. Her food is of poorer quality and less appetizing than the family's; for if the bread and meat are the same, other things as important are not. She comes up from the country and is plunged at once from the fresh air and free expanse of her old surroundings into the dismal darkness of a London kitchen. But she has come to London, you say, of her own free will, and the bustle and brightness of the great city make amends for her dreary "place." When does she see this bustle, this brightness? On her Sunday out the shops are shut; modern housekeeping has done away with personal marketing; and even when she gets the gift of an evening to herself she sees things only in the unnatural light of the flaring gas, and if there is more rollick in the street there is less amusement. She is not, like the French bonne, the companion of her mistress to the lively markets, down the gay boulevards, or for long sweet summer hours in the gardens of the Tuileries or the Luxembourg. Fresh air and the brisk circulation of out-of-door life do not count in England as necessary for our poor maids; as little as the fêtes, the sight-seeing, the friendly companionship of the mistress, which form the rule of middle-class life in France. We are a people of grim caste and stern work, and servants have to yield to the social powers above them and work like the rest; only they yield more, work harder, and enjoy less, and have infinitely less liberty than the rest.
In no other trade or profession is there such a want of personal freedom, such continuous command, such arbitrary denial as in this. Take the list of what is denied in an ordinary well-conducted house. No followers, no friends in the kitchen, no laughing to be heard above stairs, no romping for young girls to whom romping is an instinct all the same as with lambs and kittens, no cessation of work save at meal-times, no getting out for half an hour into the bright sunshine, save "on the sly," or after the not always pleasant process of asking leave; and above all, education for the fancy or the intellect beyond a dull magazine for Sunday [300/301] reading, which is held quite sufficient recreation for lonely Betty moping in the dreary kitchen on the afternoon of her Sunday in. All grinding work claustral monotony, with the world seen only through the gratings of the area window as the holiday folks flock to and fro--this is English domestic service. And then we wonder that our maids, touched by the fever of this ardent, restless Present, revolt against it and think their condition hard.
But mistresses say they should be very happy. To be sure they have their friends and associates, their early affections, their treasured memories. They are among strangers, hard worked and horribly dull, without a friend to whom to cling, only employers to please and strange tempers to conciliate. May be they suffer from home-sickness, or from heart-sickness, which is worse; but they are sufficiently fed, they have no taxes to meet, their anxieties are few, and their wages are punctually paid. What more do they want?--nay, are they not the most to be envied of us all? When they have done their work, is it not pleasure enough for these young women in the prime of life, and with the first flush of that desire for experience inherent in human nature knocking at their hearts, to sit down alone, or two together, in the silent kitchen with a basketful of sewing for their evening's amusement? Perhaps the family keeps a butler whose work scarcely exercises his brawny muscles, and whose higher nature is as much considered as the higher nature of the beasts in the fatting yard; perhaps there is a young and sprightly "page boy" of eighteen or twenty. According to the odd self-complacency of English respectability the fact that these young men and women live together, "under our roof," is held sufficient guarantee against everything unbecoming. The Refuges tell a different tale; and if we had to go into causes, we should find the want of more society and the want of more varied pleasures at the root of nine-tenths of the disasters which occur.
If the pleasures of servants are restricted, so is their sphere of education. Suppose for a moment that Betty was detected in any endeavour after improvement beyond the three R.'s? Suppose she set herself to learn French or German, to play the piano, to try her skill in paint and crayons? Would it be allowed? I think not. I think that a literary or artistic maid would rank as twin-sister with an immoral one, and that if she wanted to keep her place she would have to understand that the golden apples of the tree of knowledge never grew for her plucking, and that for a servant to be educated into the region of thought and the aesthetics is a monstrosity calling for condemnation and dismissal. Some employers, and these by no means the minority, lament that servants are taught even to read or write. They maintain that the more ignorant the woman the more likely the machine. And a docile machine, a transferable slave--that is their ideal of a good servant. Yet there is no valid reason why a servant should not be well-educated outside her professional duties--duties, let it be remembered, which cultured women consider so miserably unsatisfying, they think themselves degraded in performing, but which en [301/302] revanche are held to be all sufficient for the hearts and brains of their poorer sisters. Even intellect and intellectual rights are questions social status in our free England, and poverty has no claim to knowledge. Why not? A box of crayons on the kitchen-table in the evening would not spoil the pastry in the morning, and a piano below stairs would sound no more inharmoniously than a piano above stairs; for my own part I cannot see why Betty should not utilise her leisure in higher ways than that eternal sewing which she generally does so ill. Margaret Clement, Sir Thomas More's "ingenious kinswoman" and domestic, was educated in the learned languages and liberal sciences equally with his own daughters. She corresponded with Erasmus, who praised her letters "for their good sense and chaste Latin," and the chances are that she could make fine bread and hog's pudding as well as the most ignorant.
Nor can I understand why Betty may not have her friends and lovers to come and see her, poor wench, all the same as they come to see the young ladies upstairs; nor why the feelings of the family should be outraged, and propriety along with them, if her merry laugh penetrated even to the sacred enclosure of the dining-room and the parlour. This may be rank democracy; and democracy is a word of fear to the British householder; but the recognition of human rights seems to me a flag under which to fight than the maintenance of arbitrary arrangements by which they are violated.
It is a heresy, as yet, to maintain that the master exists for the servant quite as much as the servant exists for the master. Money is assumed to confer more than the mere power to buy the time and labour which others have to sell. It is assumed to buy the whole being--liberty, affection, mind, freewill, and creed. There are householders who do not allow even her own chapel to their maid. She must go to the parish church with the family, or she takes no service with them. It is the family they say, and the family demands religious uniformity that is the suppression of inconvenient individualism of conscience below stairs, and minds and souls put into the livery which bodies--at least feminine bodies--refuse to wear. The employer is absolute, the servant is still only his movable serf from whom he demands all he desires, stinting nothing of his own margin while giving back only the stipulated convention. Take the case of a family where there is illness and no sick-nurse is hired. The servants are expected to do their share in the sitting up o' nights and the extra work that must needs be about. And should they refuse they would be considered unwomanly and inhuman, and would probably lose their situations with a bad mark against their characters. But were they themselves to feel ill, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand they would be sent to the hospital or their own homes; and the mistress would justify herself for the expulsion in her hour of need of the woman who had lost her health in her service--and her friends would justify her too. Indeed mistresses speak of their maids' diseases, for the most part, in an injured tone, as if they were personally aggrieved by them, and say with, [302-303] a provoked air, "How tiresome!" when Molly is down with housemaid's knee, or Betty has brought scarlet fever or smallpox--and her own death--into the household which has money enough to escape while there is yet time and no harm done to the sacred members of the upper chambers. Servants have a proverb among themselves, mournfully true and as suggestive: "Service is no inheritance." There is not only the demoralising impossibility of drawing any great prizes in the sordid lottery of brooms and saucepans into which they have put their all--not only the impossibility of chance of making a solid provision for their future, save in the case of the upper servants of high class houses--but no length, or fidelity of services constitutes a claim for support when the working-time is over and old age has come on. Even in the case of a nurse who stands nearest to the family, and who has to give more than mere time and professional deftness--a loving care that wages cannot buy nor repay--if she is to the mind of her mistress she is kept during the baby years when she is wanted, but no sooner is the nursery empty than she is found superfluous and dismissed. To be sure in some good loving households she is made one of the family for her life; but these are comparatively rare instances, and, for the most part, Nurse, however devoted she has been, is kept just for so long as she is of use in her department and not a moment beyond. All her maternal care of the children, her close attendance that rarely knows a break, the patience she must have with fractious tempers--a patience that the mother could not exercise but that she expects to buy from a stranger for so much money and other considerations--her watchful days and sleepless nights, all are forgotten if a ruffle comes upon the smooth surface of the conventional manners prescribed for servants, or if she has outlived the repeopling of the cradle. And if this true of Nurse it is doubly so of every other servant. With what conscience then can we demand, as we do, energies, devotion, self-sacrifice beyond the stipulated tale of tasks, when we give on our side absolutely nothing but the bare bones of our enforced obligations?
If the servants of the middle classes have wrongs and sorrows, what shall we say of the lodging-house slaves--of the wretched maids of all work who fill our hospitals, our unions, our lunatic asylums? From our absurd liking to be housekeeping troglodytes, living in brick and mortar cells, compartmented, as our modern expression of cave-life, rather than honestly attempt co-operation, we submit to every kind of inconvenience, and commit therewith injustice. When we leave home we go into dirty lodgings, where the cooking is bad and the service worse; where the landlady is dishonest and the drudge incompetent; and where, at the end of the week, we find we have spent nearly as much for our tough steaks and dingy rooms as we should had we gone to an hotel, and shared appliances with our fellow-creatures--all because we will not eat at one table while a couple of strangers eat at another, and because we object to meeting people we do not know on the stairs. If it was only for the difference there is in the lives of the servants of an hotel or lodging-house [303-304], we ought in justice to prefer the former. In a lodging-house is neither method nor order, neither leisure for the drudge nor satisfaction for the lodgers. Every one considers himself entitled to be served at his own hours and without delay. And if two or three have the same hours, each considers himself entitled to be served first. What are the results to the poor maid of all work no one needs to be told. Ignorant, inept, friendless, she has only the choice between her miserable serfdom and the streets. She knows nothing that the world wants at her hands. Reared in poverty and brutish ignorance from the beginning, she is a slave with a movable master, but immovable conditions; and she receives a slave's portion. In an hotel, on the contrary, the servants have their work clearly defined and exactly apportioned. It is an orderly, almost scientific arrangement of time and duties; and if a servant chooses, she need never hear a harsh word nor receive an order. And it is not fixed work, even if heavy, so much as interruption, following after, and scoldings, to which servants object. And if they are good for anything, and know their business, they will not submit to the unmethodical dictation, the constant herding and hounding which some mistresses hold as the very soul and perfection of housekeeping. For even housework is following the scientific tendencies of the age, and the constant phrase of a servant, "I know my business," expresses the more professional and less domestic aspect characteristic of modern service.
No lady feels herself degraded by the use of harsh language to her servants, just as no slave-holding lady feels herself degraded if she strikes her slave or orders her out to be flogged. And no one acknowledges she has been unjust, or apologises to the maid she has wronged. Here again the maintenance of an artificial social status is held of a higher quality than truth, justice, generosity, or repentance. The servant, for her part however, is required to bear everything without a murmur. Accused wrongfully, she must not justify herself. "I allow no answers," says the mistress, severely. When harshly spoken to she must have only the soft answers which are said to turn away wrath. When fretted, nervous, ill, in trouble, she must wear the same smooth manner, the same placid face, which also are parts of her spiritual livery; and whatever the private foxes hidden beneath her cloak, she must be at all times patient, willing, respectful, and submissive. She must have neither temper nor nerves neither brooding fancies nor quick resentments. She must abandon every personal affection and the outward show of all personal desires when she enters this cold stranger's house; and I have often heard mistresses complain, as of a wrong done themselves, when a faithful servant is leaving to be married, or a valuable one is changing to better herself. I have heard, too, the fiercest indignation expressed because cook left suddenly, on the morning of a dinner-party, to go to her dying mother. "So selfish, so inconsiderate--she might have waited over the day; and what am I to do?" said the house mistress, passionately. Of a surety the smooth serving of a dinner counted more to that poor small [304-305] soul than the last farewell of mother and daughter, and the tragedy of life and love in a cottage.
This changing to better herself, of which mention was just now made, is sharp thorn in the side of mistresses who have good servants, whom they wish to keep at subventions under market value. That Betty should for the sake of the man she loves, to have her own home where she is mistress, and to gather little children about her knees to call her mother, is bad enough; but to leave for the sake of five pounds a year is monstrous. That the master should leave his flock, if a parson; his editor, if a journalist; his company, if an officer; his post, whatever his and whatever his personal ties, for a higher salary, is only what is just to his wife and children and wise on his own account; for is not the right and wrong of every question determined by the social condition of the actor ? Again, if the mistress really cared for Betty, she would give her that extra five pounds to keep her. But this would be considered spoiling her; so she is let to go, and is held to have behaved ill for going.
The simple fact is, that with all society changing above and around us, we want to keep the lower-lying classes--and notably the servants--from changing too. A generation or two ago country people stayed at home throughout their lives, with rarely a break; and a visit to London was an event to be remembered for a decade and more. Now everyone everywhere leaves home as a rate once at least in the year; and Paris or Vienna is not farther removed from us to-day than was the country town or the metropolis from our great grandmothers. But when Betty, bitten the national mania for locomotion, asks to do her little outings, and to go with the cheap trips to this show-place, or to that, or may be only to her friends in town or country, she is considered as a gad-about, and evil things are prophesied of her. So with dress. Our middle-class ladies now spend what a few years ago would have been thought an iniquitous proportion of their income on their backs; and of all fashions afloat, that of simplicity is the only one decried. Following their example, influence filtering downwards, Betty spends largely too. But what is only proper attention to appearances in the mistress is a sin in the maid; though at bottom of each lies the principle common to all women--desire to attract admiration. I own I cannot see that what is both amiable and antiseptic in the one is evil and corrupting in the other. Women instinctively put a great deal of their self-respect into their attire; and our maids are women before they are servants. They might certainly have better taste and knowledge. They might be more reticent in the matter of colour, and not so fond of cheap and flaring finery. So they would be if they were better taught; and that box of crayons downstairs, with a sideway from the kitchen into the beautiful world of art and harmony, would do more to reform the national taste in dress among the servants and their sisters than all the frowns of great ladies indignant at the ugly imitation of their style, or the exhortation of preachers inveighing against a general instinct as a specialised wrong-doing. [Vol. xxix.-No. 171. 15.] [305-306]
This question, too, is a test of the reality, the logical sincerity of liberal principles. When I hear women who are earnest for the recognition of their own political and professional equality with men speak to their servants as to inferior beings--maintain, indeed, the necessity for this race of inferior beings, by whose degradation they may be exalted, and into whose hands they may fling all their own natural duties, and in so flinging them dishonour them--I know then that they are simply self-seekers, not fighters for truth and justice, envious of others' good things but unwilling to share their own. Equality "stars" all ways; above, below, and all round; and sincerity has the same form. If the advanced women who now demand the gift of equality from men would first of grant it to their maids, the world would be better disposed towards them than it is. Let them take an educated class of women into their houses, as helpers, not menials; let them impose on themselves the absolute rule, of treating these helpers with respect, the same kind of respect that with which a commanding officer treats his subordinates, the colonel and the captain; let them honour their natural work by carrying to its fit performance intellect, zeal, and education; let them bring back the patriarchal spirit of friendliness and household relationship by intellectual and personal status of the maid, and they will then get rid of one of the most galling sores of modern home life. Or failing this, let them then accept the alternative of the purely professional character of domestic service, and cease to complain of a state of things which could but will not alter. It cannot be all on one side--the devotion from below characteristic of the patriarchal times, without the friendliness and close companionship from above; professional accuracy in the maid personal interference in the mistress. It must be a state of reciprocal duties, reciprocal advantages. It is for the mistress to decide by which principle she will stand, and the day is not distant when she will be forced into a decision.
We cannot mop out the Atlantic with a broom. Mrs. Partington tried it and failed; so shall we, and have. For good or ill the tide of social disintegration has set in, and all classes alike are in a state of inchoate revolution and "unstable equilibrium"--our servants with the rest. We must make the best of the inevitable; and it is ever a wiser thing to head a movement than to be overtaken by it, and perhaps over-whelmed. Of the inevitable, is the changed character of domestic service. The old affectionate and patriarchal relations, when the servants stood in the light of humble friends rather than hireling strangers, have gone, at least for the time. Whether mistresses like it or not, aid it or endeavour to retard it, we shall probably come round to the same relative positions on another and a higher platform. Machinery, by which human hands will be spared the dirty and revolting work they have to do now, will be more and more in use in our homes. This will allow of a more cultivated class of servants, who will thus be brought nearer to their employers because made equal to them in refinement and true culture. [306-307] Wages will be higher; and with better wages, a more liberal education, and the automatic performance of distasteful work, there is no reason why servants should not be to all intents and purposes gentlewomen; as much as milliners, schoolmistresses, and shopkeepers. There is nothing in the fact of work that degrades; it is only the workers who are degraded. With a better class of servants domestic service will lose much of its present character of serfdom, and become more a distinct profession, having its duties, times, and functions accurately defined. Hence it will lose that element of personal humiliation in its enforced obedience to tempers, tyrannical command, capricious regulations, and the like, which now fret so painfully the women who find themselves under the rule of women. Co-operation, maybe day-service, will also come into the ordering of the future; and households, as well as society, will have to be remodelled in consideration of the servants, instead of being, as now, organised with no more regard to their lives or welfare than if they were so many cab-horses or black-beetles. The efforts of servants to make a mere business like any other, unelastic in its details, definite in its requirements, and impersonal and devoid of margins, are efforts demanding the earnest consideration of society; partly because they are embarrassing, partly because they will succeed, mainly because they are just. In the revolution sweeping on so rapidly, those among us will be the wisest and the safest who keep that one step in advance which ensures a free path; and it will be better to recognise the claims of servants to more equality in the matter of education, to personal rights as well as professional duties, to better wages, whereby they may have the possibility of an assured future, such as should be integral to all work, to the recognition that service does not mean slavery even in its most modified aspects--than to have all this forced from us harshly, and with a damaging uprooting, instead of by gradual growth and self-adjusting evolution.
E. L. L.
Last updated 20 December 2001