Friday, February 16, 2007

Domestic Disturbances

Pas devant les domestiques (not in front of the servants),” said Lord Louche, so that Lady Louche wouldn’t confront him with his numerous indiscretions at the dinner table. I bet the staff could translate that particular phrase, and knew exactly what their lord had done, too.

Books are filled with loyal retainers. Scarlett has Mammy. Bertie has Jeeves. Bruce Wayne has Alfred. We won’t talk about devious Mrs. Danvers because she’s an aberration, although she was loyal to Rebecca. In historicals the footman is always underfoot accompanying the ladies while they shop and the maid is always lacing maniacally. The butlers are all-knowing, cooks always kind and bosomy, unless they are temperamental French chefs written for comic relief.

Alas, I, like most modern women, get my knowledge of such domestic arrangements from Upstairs, Downstairs, The Remains of the Day, Gosford Park and other period pieces, all rather bittersweet if not downright sour. On occasion, I have had cleaning women, but they terrified me so totally I cleaned up before they came.

It’s impossible to write a historical romance without a nod to the servant class. While Lord and Lady Louche had certain responsibilities in running their household and estate, their hands rarely got dirty. From the 1837 diary of a footman, William Taylor, comes this eloquent passage:

The life of a gentleman's servant is something that of a bird shut up in a cage. The bird is well housed and well fed but is deprived of liberty, and liberty is the dearest and sweetest object of all Englishmen. Therefore I would rather be like a sparrow or a lark, have less housing and feeding and rather more liberty. A servant is shut up like a bird in a cage, deprived of the benefit of the air to the very great injury of the constitution.

And it took a great many shut-up birds to keep a household running smoothly. Consequently, Lord and Lady Louche were rarely alone. Perhaps their cage was gilded and had more amenities, but they were prisoners of society nevertheless. No wonder Lord Louche left to frolic with an opera dancer and Lady Louche dipped into the laudanum with far too much frequency. But I’ll save infidelity and drug addiction for another post.

So, how about it? Would you like to travel back in time so you could fill your empty days embroidering, playing the pianoforte, reading gothick novels, gossiping and waiting around for Lord Right? And you’d have to change your outfit up to six times a day, too. If so, who would you be, in fact or fiction?

Or do you think you’d wind up as the housemaid, cleaning the grate and lighting the fire for your mistress each morning, with never a moment of your own? I feel a little like Cinderella myself.


terrio said...

Hey there, Maggie. I can't believe I haven't been over here for a while. But you know, if reading blogs and bulletin boards could be an occupation, then I've found my calling. I think I'm up to six and still going.

This blog reminds me of the reality shows PBS did where they had people live like they did in the past. Manor House? I think that's the one. Some were put into the rolls of servants and others got to be the aristocrats. If I remember correctly, they had a hard time keeping the people assigned to be servants because the work was so hard and the hours so long.

I wouldn't go back only because I really like indoor plumbing and I can't stand to be told what to do. And since I'm sure that I would have been some kind of chamber maid, I'd rather just stay here.

santasmbslt said...

Since I live the Cinderella life now sans glass slipper, I think I'd like to be Lady of the manor for a couple of days. I wouldn't mind changing outfits a few times a day especially since my maid will be doing all the work. I think I could only do this for a few days before I'd get bored out of my mind....unless I have a HOT Lord of the manor!

Elyssa Papa said...

I would love to be a princess for a day... I look very good in tiaras if I do say so myself. But, I don't think that I would like actually being a princess wearing those heavy dresses and being under constant scrutiny.

A duchess would be nice with, of course, a loving duke who bathes daily, has all his teeth, and of course is handsome, well-to-do, and all that jazz. I don't ask for much, do I? LOL.

I think that wearing dresses 24/7 would be a b*tch... I really like wearing pants. I wouldn't have a problem with wearing my hair up since I do it anyways... but the thought of body odors and wigs and what women did when they had their periods makes me always second guess wanting to live in that time period.

Janga said...

I'd rather time travel and go back as an observer. I'd love to check out the scenes, but I like my mod cons. I don't even like to camp. A friend who has tried unsuccessfully for twenty-five years to persuade me to go camping says that my idea of primitive is not having reservations at the hotel. He's right.

I read somewhere that one Pemberley-like estate had 80 in-door servants. 80! I not only value modern plumbing and electric lights; I also like my privacy. No wonder the servants always know everything in those Regency-set historicals. They were everywhere.

Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe said...

Terrio, I know what you mean about blogs. I log on for a few minutes in the morning and before I know it, it's lunchtime.

Santa, yeah, a maid---or somebody---was definitely necessary to get you dressed. All those tiny hooks and eyes. Thank God for jeans and t-shirts. And velcro sneakers.

Princess Ely, I keep thinking of all the little critters living under the wigs. And the smells. Yuck.

Janga, my husband was a boy scout. That cured him of ever wanting to go camping as an adult. His idea of roughing it is to go to a motel without HBO.

Thanks for your comments. You all sound so smart!!!

Anonymous said...

You write very well.

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