delanceyplace.com 3/9/11 - servants, prostitutes, and karl marx
In today's excerpt - the Industrial Revolution in England brought an explosion in population from eight million in 1800 to thirty million in 1900, the creation of massive new wealth, and the ascendance of England to global domination. It also brought unprecedented inequality and a profound dislocation in families and lives, as innovations in farming left thousands out of work and drew them to larger cities seeking employment. For some, that work was in the newly forming factories, for others it was work as servants and prostitutes. In fact, in the mid-1800s, one-third of all women in London age fifteen to twenty-five were servants, and another third were prostitutes. The veneer of prudishness and decorum we now refer to as "Victorian" was English society's way of denying and recoiling from the consequences of this dislocation and degradation:
"[A typical householder, Rector Thomas] Marsham, kept three servants: the housekeeper, Miss Worm; the village girl who worked as an underservant, Martha Seely; and a groom and gardener named James Baker. Like their master, all were unmarried. Three servants to look after one bachelor clergyman might seem excessive to us, but it wouldn't have seemed so to anyone in Marsham's day. Most rectors kept at least four servants, and some had ten or more. It was an age of servants. Households had servants the way modern people have appliances. Common laborers had servants. Sometimes servants had servants.
"Servants were more than a help and convenience; they were a vital indicator of status. Guests at dinner parties might find that they had been seated according to the number of servants they kept. People held on to their servants almost for dear life. Even on the American frontier and even after she had lost almost everything in a doomed business venture, Frances Trollope, mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope, kept a liveried footman. Karl Marx, living in chronic indebtedness in Soho and often barely able to put food on the table, employed a housekeeper and a personal secretary. The household was so crowded that the secretary—a man named Pieper—had to share a bed with Marx. (Somehow, even so, Marx managed to put together enough private moments to seduce and impregnate the housekeeper, who bore him a son in the year of the Great Exhibition.)
"So servitude was a big part of life for a great many people. By 1851, one-third of all the young women in London—those aged from about fifteen to twenty-five—were servants. Another one in three was a prostitute. For many, that was about all the choice there was. The total number of servants in London, male and female, was greater than the total populations of all but the six largest English cities. Service was very much a female world. Females in service in 1851 outnumbered males by ten to one. For women, however, seldom was it a job for life. Most left the profession by the age of thirty-five, usually to get married, and very few stayed in any one job for more than a year or so. That is little wonder, as we shall see. Being a servant was generally hard and thankless work. ...
"Perhaps the hardest part of [being a servant] was simply being attached to and dependent on people who didn't think much of you. Virginia Woolf's diaries are almost obsessively preoccupied with her servants and the challenge of maintaining patience with them. Of one, she writes: 'She is in a state of nature: untrained; uneducated ... so that one sees a human mind wriggling undressed.' As a class they were as irritating as 'kitchen flies.' Woolf's contemporary Edna St. Vincent Millay was rather more blunt: 'The only people I really hate are servants. They are not really human beings at all.' ...
"One handbook actually gave instructions—in fact, provided a working script—for how to humiliate a servant in front of a child, for the good of both child and servant. In this model scenario, the child is summoned to the study, where he finds his mother standing with the shamed servant, who is weeping quietly."
"Nurse Mary," the mother begins, "is going to tell you that there are no black men who creep into little boys' room in the dark and carry them off when they are naughty. I want you to listen while Nurse Mary tells you this, for she is going away to-day and you will probably never see her again."
The nurse is then confronted with each of her foolish tales and made to recant them one by one.
The boy listens carefully, then offers his had to the deapting employee. "Thank you, nurse," he says crisply. "I ought not to have been afraid, but I believed you, you know." Then he turns to his mother. "I shall not be afraid, now, Mother," he reassures her in an appropriatly manly fashion, and all return to their normal lives—except of course the nurse, who will probably never find respectable work again.
|At Home: A Short History of Private Life|
|Anchor Books, A Division of Random House|
|Copyright 2010 by Bill Bryson|