The Pride of the Servant Class in "Pickwick" and "North and South"

"Dixon You forget to whom you are speaking." She stood upright and firm on her feet now, confronting the waiting-maid, and fixing her with her steady, discerning eye. "I am Mr. Hale's daughter. Go You have made a strange mistake, and one that I am sure your own good feeling will make you sorry for when you think about it." (Gaskell, 83)

Margaret's assertion of her dominance as a mistress over a servant, rather than causing a feeling of bitterness in Dixon, brings Dixon to say to herself, "'Miss Margaret has a touch of the old gentleman about her, as well as poor Master Frederick; I wonder where they get it from?' and she, who would have resented such words from anyone less haughty and determined in manner, was subdued enough to say, in a half-humble, half-injured tone: 'Mayn't I unfasten your gown, miss, and do your hair?'" (Gaskell, 83) Margaret's assertion of class roles reminds Dixon of her pride in being a servant. This pride that she feels is similar to the pride Sam Weller feels in being Pickwick's servant. Sam is occasionally reprimanded by Pickwick as well. At one point in the novel, Pickwick angrily tells Sam "if you say another word, or offer the slightest interference with this person, I discharge you that instant" (Dickens, 652). Yet despite Pickwick's reprimands, Sam still considers Pickwick a "reg'lar thorough-bred angel" (Dickens, 734). This theme of servant pride in a commanding master/ mistress runs throughout both North and South and The Pickwick Papers.

Because Dickens and Gaskell are both authors who work to challenge social hierarchies in their writing, their portrayals of servant pride are a bit surprising. The feelings that both Dixon and Sam Weller have are left over from the feudal period when it was perfectly acceptable, and even honorable, to want to serve a master or mistress and to serve him or her well. Although Margaret frequently shows frustration with Dixon, she also realizes the vital stability that Dixon offers. When Margaret discovers that her mother is sick, and that Dixon has known but kept it to herself, Margaret apologizes to Dixon, expressing her humbleness for all the time "I've been cross with you, not knowing what a terrible secret you had to bear" (Gaskell, 178). Margaret then "hung about Dixon for a minute or so, as if afraid and irresolute; then suddenly kissing her, she went quickly out of the room" (Gaskell, 179). Dixon is a different level of working class from someone like Bessie or Nicholas Higgins because of the feudal tradition from which she comes. Near the end of the novel, Dixon returns to London from Milton, bringing "endless pieces of Milton gossip." But, as the narrator points out, "her memory had an aristocratic bias, and was very treacherous whenever she tried to recall any circumstances connected with those below her in life" (Gaskell, 491). While the frivolity of London life is deplorable in the Shaws, Margaret's aristocratic relatives, somehow this same "aristocratic bias" in Dixon is acceptable. Her presence, while sometimes irritatingly proud, is always reassuring for the Hales.

Sam Weller is similarly reassuring for Pickwick. Sam is worldly-wise in a way that Pickwick is not. Pickwick's aristocratic status makes him naive. The relationship between servant and master here is idealized into a loving relationship. They are alternately father-figures to each other- Sam directing Pickwick in the ways of the world, Pickwick directing Sam in societal conventions and principles. The distinction between an aristocratic servant class and a lower servant class that is made in North and South is made in The Pickwick Papers as well. Sam Weller approaches life from a lower class servant position, yet somehow he makes a place for himself amidst the aristocratic servant class. On a visit to Bath, Sam gets invited to a "soiree" for servants of a certain stature in life. When the greengrocer arrives to serve the food at this gathering, the following interaction takes place. Mr. Tackle, one of servants in charge of the "swore," as Sam calls it,

took the chair... The greengrocer put on a pair of wash-leather gloves to hand the plates with, and stationed himself behind Mr Tuckle's chair.

"Harris," said Mr. Tuckle, in a commanding tone.

"Sir," said the greengrocer.

"Have you got your gloves on?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then take the kiver off."

"Yes, sir."

The greengrocer did as he was told, with a show of great humility, and obsequiously handed Mr. Tuckle the carving knife. [Dickens, 611-12]

The social divisions in this scene are remarkably clear from the dialogue that takes place. Weller's straightforward words and thoughts often catch people off guard, both members of the upper classes, such as Pickwick, and members of this aristocratic servant class as well. In this same scene, Sam tells a "man in blue," "I like your cowersation much. I think it's wery pretty" (Dickens, 613). The ensuing conversation, in which Sam shakes his head in a particular way that is "highly gratifying to the personal vanity of the gentleman in blue" but says nothing of particular consequence, leads the man to say, "I'm afraid you're a cunning fellow, Mr Weller." Thus Sam, although by a different means than Dixon, establishes himself as a member of this aristocratic social class, even though this occurs by a series of misunderstandings on the part of that class. His devotion, loyalty and honor in serving Pickwick, along with his acceptance by this group of servants, place him in the feudal tradition. Pickwick relies on him as Mrs. Hale relies on Dixon, as a confidant and friend as well as a servant.

The Pickwick Papers can be said to create a utopian vision of the world, for he harkens back to a pre-industrial age when class stratification was acceptable and everyone was happy existing within their social roles. Indeed, Dickens seems to be intentionally creating a reassuring world as a space to escape the problems of everyday life. Sam Weller's role is therefore a part of this nostalgic utopia. Gaskell, however, attempts to portray and challenge the class hierarchy through the use of realism. Her characterization of Dixon does not seem to fit in with this underlying theme of her book. Dixon, while often frustrating Margaret precisely because she oversteps her bounds as a servant and tries to act as an equal, is always in the end a reassurance. Thus Gaskell's attempt at challenging the social hierarchy is not completely effective, for she can never do away with Dixon's position all together. While Margaret advocates communication and a form of equality between the social classes, this perspective is only limited to the realm outside her own. She can support Bessie and Nicholas Higgins because they are in Thornton's realm of work. Dixon, the only consistent "lower class" member of the family, is confined to her class role.

Last modified 1996