Thomas Rowlandson, Anger: “This unruly passion shows itself in a forcible degree in a termagent Mistress, scolding her Maid servant”
‘Tis a notorious Fault among Servants that they have a Custom of demanding Wages … Directions to Lord, and Ladies, Maids and Mistresses, 1766
Skimmers and ladles and such Trumpery/Are brought in to complete our Slavery … Mary Collier’s The Woman’s Labour, 1739
‘A servant write verses!’ says Madame du Bloom
‘Pray what is the subject – a Mop or a Broom?’
‘He, he, he,’ says Miss Flounce: ‘I suppose we shall see
An Ode on a Dishclout – what else can it be … Elizabeth Hands
Dear friends and readers,
When my husband stopped reading books because he could no longer focus his eyes or brain long enough, he was about one-third the way through Carolyn Steedman’s powerful and important Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England. This happened some time in the middle of August of this year. I have just finished reading the book in his place, as it were for him. It’s quite typical of the kind of book he’d read.
Joanna Innes pointed out in her LRB review:
Carolyn Steedman’s is a distinctive, probing, inquiring voice. Personal, but not solipsistic. We never forget, reading her books, that there’s a mind in charge, but not one that’s preoccupied with itself: it is always grappling with some other experience, some other way of seeing, which can’t be re-experienced, but can be hunted, glimpsed, located in its habitat, experimentally ventriloquised, considered from different points of view (some critical), or approached indirectly through its impact on others, or through its refracted representations. … what makes [Labours Lost] stand out is the quality of imagination it displays. One might describe it as an intellectual history of domestic service, because it is above all an account of the way people thought about service: how servants thought about it, how their employers thought about it, how magistrates, lawyers, tax collectors and MPs thought about it
[Steedman's book is] a grounded intellectual history, in which the writings of economists and physiologists figure as ‘stories’ alongside other kinds of story told by contemporaries, in Parliament, in the law courts, to the taxman, in correspondence, in the parlour, in the kitchen … Labours Lost is a sustained and determined exercise in eavesdropping on all kinds of mental activity connected to the institution of domestic service. Much of what we overhear isn’t very elevating … . Steedman is interested in the servant jokes employers liked to tell (though also alienated by them): why did they want to tell them
E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class as a reference point, suggesting that Thompson – influenced by Adam Smith and Marx’s dismissal of domestic service as unproductive labour – thought he could write a history of the working class with the servants left out; her mission is to put them back in.
Steedman’s book is a deeply humane brilliant corrective piece of historical sociology: about relationships of workers and their employers in the 18th century; about work itself, how it was understood, how treated; what laws and customs embodied. Richardson’s Pamela emerges in a different light in this book. I have been pointing out that unlike her novels, in her letters once she leaves Steventon, Austen registers an almost continuing real presence of servants in her letters; she intermingles with them; I’m glad to say there are none of these mean jokes about servants that are so common in the era (though she’s willing to mock many other types of people and situations). Where possible, Steedman records servants talking back, writing back, not abject.
Maid sweeping: the broom is too large for her, suggesting the drawing is of a child
Steedman opens by telling us that she was of the generation who profited from the strong socialist legislation just after WW2 in England — the state taught her to read, got her away from home, sent her to university, funded her Ph.D project. Her attitude of mind is the product of this.
She wants to write of servants. They constituted the majority of working people and yet they are missed out in the great histories of labor. She begins with telling how employers used servants to make jokes about – they were a way of presenting a jaundiced view of the working class and much of these jokes are “deeply unpleasant”, exhibiting deprecation and “self-regard” by comparisons.
Virginia Woolf frequently indulged in these as apparently did Hester Thrale and the prologue to this book is an account of the way Mrs Thrale and then Piozzi half-mocked and told stories of her servants. Mrs Thale tells of a dream her maid said she had that Mrs Thrale’s eldest daughter (the awful one) married Mr Crutchley whom Hester and this servant believed to be an illegitimate son of Mr Thrale. Thrale was expressing her anxieties and angers about her dysfunctional family. Mrs Thrale also told of servants’ reversals of fortune or sudden ascendancy over someone they had worked for. (Richardson’s Pamela becomes a “get-back” tale in this perspective). Shrill laughter, social disdain, cultural commentary (about maids having followers, males sex lives), their diets (which caused jealousy as the servants ate left-overs). Inventive and terrifying stories on the part of those up and downstairs.
The servants themselves expressed intense longings for lives of their own, for fulfillments, and very great and intense hatreds living in such close intimacy. Violent and personal. In revolutions the masters fears the servants most.
Moll Handy, with a letter of recommendation — servant as automaton
In this powerful first chapter Steedman stakes out a view of society which includes domestic work as work that counts, and says if we do this we gain a whole other picture of the society now obscured. The way in which Godwin describes servants and talks about his relationship to them tells us far more about his _real_ politics than any of his abstract theoretical tracts. In the period there was an insistence on pretending servants were male, talking of them as male, when most were female; men did the same tasks as women did in the house (mostly, not caring for young babies). Servants were called part of the family but if you look closely you see they are outsiders, working for the family and the relationship is contractual.
She suggests the ambivalence of the employer/master then has its equivalent today in women hiring other women to clean for them, and not wanting to acknowledge the reality and importance of this (how it gets in the way of feminist movements). As Pamela was a scary story for mistresses then, so Fay Weldon’s She May Not Leave where the servant winds up having the husband, baby and hous, and Mary Tendo’s My Cleaner (she is the cleaning woman) does similar cultural exposure. I agree with her idea some women disliking cleaning themselves and also being the sort of person who hires cleaning people, solve the difficulty by cleaning much less … What we have seen in the 20th century is a commercialization of intimate life as teams of people are contracted to do things like clean or work outside the house. The poor laws become a key for understanding how the poor and working class were controlled, a kind of system of police. For us today class is really an identity issue and traditional ways of discussing class do not allow us to get at these concrete hierarchies then and now.
She does not recount the painful jokes themselves; and also says that in order to avoid taxes much was hidden.
Chapter 2: Servants numberless: theories of labor and property. Her point about jokes about servants is born out by Francis Burney’s journals. The most widely realized relationship in the society outside the family unit was servant and master/mistress. Numbers show the ubiquity of paid domestic help — not in vast houses like Downton Abbey, but one or two to a house, the world was filled with drudges. Male servants thin on the ground, but both did catch-all work.
Their labor not counted because they don’t produce things, but seen as part of contract and services they are a measure of how realities were understood and arranged. Everyday acts of hire and contract, employers acquiring labor of inferiors. Locke’s Thoughts Concerning Education one of the places where we learn much of this relationship, a transfer of work for wages (place to live, food). William Blackstone’s commentaries another rich source.
Chapter 3: Frances Hamilton’s Labour: This chapter is a recounting and analyses of diaries of householders where they minutely tell of the worlds of servants that surround them; of especial interest is Frances Hamilton, married briefly (5 years not so brief) to a Bath medical man. Her books are the focus of the chapter. She wrote everything down and we see how permeable the master/mistress world was with the servants, and continual interactions of all sorts. You get an accurate picture of 18th century country life.
Hamilton read too, considered slavery vis-a-vis service (servitude), and while she wrote little, what she did write shows she was thinking and this gives Steedman license to tell us what were in these books, and Steedman makes a case for seeing servants as an integral part of the way people saw hierarchy and judged the way the social world worked.
I’ll note in what will be 24 volumes eventually Frances Burney’s diaries are nothing like this, but here and there Austen mirrors the world of Hamilton.
Chapter 4: Lord Mansfield’s Women
Wm Murray, 1st Earl Mansfield (1705-93)
Her account of the way seven working class women were treated by Lord Mansfield’s court reveals the thinking behind laws which denied women any reality but as bodies doing things either for men or their employers. She shows how those in power in localities would spend much much more preventing any woman (or working man) from achieving a right of “settlement” (to stay in a parish and thus get parish relief) than it would have cost them to relieve them. In court cases ,the right of the employer trumps the right of the husband/father over the woman; if she transgresses sexually, she is held as having committed a crime.
The subtitle is “Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England:” the way Steedman presents the thinking here you can see why the rage of Republicans at social security and now Affordable Health Care (though this is apparently going bust as the people doing it never thought of the actual people trying to buy): the upper classes at the time become enraged at anything which appears to entitle a poorer person to a property right, even if in law they may be said to have earned it. The right of settlement is hated because it is a right to some means of subsistence by right of working for a year in a place, or being born there, or (for a woman) marrying someone with that right. The one they were prepared to honor was being born there, but you could forfeit that easily. They hated the earning one. The parallel with social security and medicare is clear.
The most poignant case of the 7 women is a black woman who is a slave. She alone is not permitted to get into the records. The white women are quoted — in startling terms the realities of their lives are before us in some detail or other, but never the black woman, the slave — never granted any right to recognition of her existence even as to words.
Following on the interlude about necessity and how much of servants lives especially women were spent getting rid of and cleaning after excrement and urine.
We also get an account of his wife, daughters – how he worried for them – -frissons of anxiety there.
Yes, Steedman is concerned to show the respect given Mansfield for his famous decision over one slave is a blip in his career, and she shows the thinking in that one is not what people assume from a couple of his humane remarks.
Chapter 5-6: in a free state (horses); the law of everyday life
Cartoon suggests servants had to register themselves and would be losers; the employer was to register the servant and pay taxes accordingly
Steedman launches into how taxes are assessed. In the era Pitt and Lord North wanted to tax the luxuries of the rich (that’s how it was done in the 1950s in the US) and not on “labour” (euphemism for laboring people). They came up the idea of taxing people for men servants (as luxuries): well we see people try to hide the male servant as a worker, as someone who lives there. They wanted to tax female servants and this was treated as ridiculous: sneering jocularity included references to such servants as there for sexual use, as ubiquitous and uncountable, as not contributing work. The protests and complaints were such the gov’t gave up (reminding me of people trying to use badly rigged website for health care where the people making them didn’t think of real people using them).
The intrusions to collect have the merit of showing us real domestic arrangements, of how political theories play out in practical life. It was a kind of politicization of every day life. To get at the wealthy was hard because they had many ways of evading, eluding — they would claim the male servant was there for business (not a luxury) so when he did husbandry not taxable.
Chapter 6, the law of everyday life, brings out the realities of lives at the time: vignettes so persuasive. Steedman goes into the notes of magistrates and cases where the fight is over employment issues, from wages held back, to assault (on the servant), to servants wanting to flee and not fulfill their contract, too much work. For one magistrate she goes over (mid-18th century) it’s obvious the employer is favored again and again, but in another (mid-19th) the balance is more even. She gets to quote the servants and masters once in a while from the Notes. Again Lord Mansfield is a great one on humanitarian principle, but when he decides he sees the law as favoring the employer.
A strong qualification of what we see on Downton Abbey and yet it also shows the importance, centrality, frequency of this relationship up until WW1.
Chapter 7: Policing Society & Servant Stories
Interviewing a servant with a letter and “character”
I had not thought of how resumes, characters, letters of reference are a form of policing you If you do not behave in a certain way, you do not have these, so cannot get a job or be promoted within one.
These were developed during the early to later literate phase of master/servant relationships and we can track them once parts of them are put into laws and customs which come with rewards (prizes were given out) and punishments — always by employers and usually interpreted to the advantage of the employer.
Her specifics are most telling — what was fought over and how hard it was for employers to control the minutiae of a servant’s behavior and this was a good tool. How clever the employers were and when they saw servants joining together they rushed to make a law against this (incipient unions).
One aspect of this is that that a certain kid of character (or mask) is forced on people. the magistrates got to define the terms too.
One can look at these scraps of paper and happenings in court as massive amounts of compulsory autobiography activity.
To revert again to Downton Abbey, we see how idealized and exemplary the behavior of all the servants in this are: even Thomas. A key factor is politeness, selfcontrol, and after that diligence and only after that some talent. Most servants did not last more than 3 years.
Chapters 8-9: Servants and child care: Ann Mead’s murder; Food for thought
Girl child servant endangering baby and herself
Chapter 8, On servants and childcare, tells what happened was Ann Mead was girl of 14/15, she was given very hard work and young baby to care for: a major portion of all servants lives was getting rid of waste; a major part of taking care of young children was cleaning their clouts (diapers). Who wouldn’t hate it. She killed he baby with just enough arsenic and was hung. The real moral lesson that you should not hire or treat children Ann Mead’s age as the society did was never drawn. Again and again Steedman mounts evidence a servant’s killing of a master or mistress or someone in the household was evidence of them driven to it, and often with children connected to keeping them or the household clothing clean. Very hard continual thankless work.
Chapter 9: As with the chapter on characters, (in effect) resumes, registering yourself, which she reveals as a form of policing someone’s life, so here about food she reveals how the powerful have always seen food as a way of controlling the lower orders: you merely restrict access. (Thus we have our explanation for Republican hatred of the food stamp program in the US.) Again she is talking about what usually is – - -servants made food – what food was made available to the poor during famine, the encouragement of using rice and meal as substitutes for wheat and bread but instead shows how aware intelligent masters were of the correlation between work energy and how much food a servant was given. We see servants indited for the smallest stealing – the Austens kept their wine, tea and other precious stocks under lock and key.
Deeply ingrained: if people don’t work, they should not eat. If you pay them more per effort, they will work less hard; if you want them docile pay less and provide less cheap food. She quotes numerous powerful people (including a cruel joke by Sheridan) to all these effects.
Did you ever consider that bread is the first fast food. Well it is.
Having begun to talk about the relationship between a servant’s capacity for work and their food intake, the next step is to describe which foods are best — from the employer’s point of view. To some exent these coincide but not altogether. Rice and other high calorie foods provide energy but may not be tasty. A literature develops which reminds Steedman of recent ways people talk about the importance of protein: how much meat should a servant have? Or animal food (the phrase used). The word hunger or hungry was rarely used; the word famine (more general and far off) favored.
Steedman shows scenes and stories were written where she satirically invokes the condescension of the writers showing how grateful and hard-working the servants are as they learn to appreciate the right food. I can’t help but remember Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier when Steedman brings up how some employers felt it better to pay less (natch) and provide the food so as to make sure the servant was eating right. (Not capable themselves? the whole point of Orwell’s famous book is to show the average English person need not have such an appalling diet (appalling to whom?) where high caloric sweet and fried foods are preferred to wholesome fresh fruit …. Steedman suggests modern nutritional science has its origins in these sorts of conversations and tracts. She fills her text up with popular calculations made in treatise — what amont of animal food it takes to buy over a year. Then there were recipe stories too. Steedman suggests in fact these books and stories were not read by servants but the masters who wrote them. Funny to me how it doesn’t take long before French ways (Soup and stews) are preferred to English (boiling, roasting, baking).
Review-summary of book continued in comments: Ode to Dishclout, Chapter 10; Servants’ Wages and an Interlude on Stays, Chapter 11; A conclusion: the hardness of physical labor, the centrality of material things which remain over the centuries, Conclusion.