Article for Sunday Herald on Servants

I have never been a servant. My closest brush with domestic service was when I was in my late twenties and spent a winter in the French Alps as a ‘maid-of-all-work’. The first hotel to hire me was a grim gulag run by Jill and Ted, a slightly sinister English couple who – rumour had it – were somehow connected to the SAS. Jill and Ted were said to engage in lurid sexual practices. They owned Alsatian dogs called Bully and Savage. They paid slave wages to their hard-working staff and cut our food rations at a whim. What with one thing and another, (18-hour days, sharing a three-room flat with nine others and, finally, false accusations of theft) it was not long before I went elsewhere.

My next hotel was entirely different. Small, French, family-run. I was the only staff member and just four people did all the work: the owner, Yvonne; her sister Marie; Yvonne’s husband Marcel, and me. After slaving for ex-army Brits, this place seemed like paradise. The work turned out to be gruelling, but when I left at the end of the season my bosses gave me a huge bonus, telling me that I was ‘costaud’ (strong) and that nobody had ever stuck with them for so long. For weeks on end, I had lived under the same roof as these people, carrying out their orders: washing dishes, scrubbing pots, cleaning toilets, changing sheets, peeling vegetables and waiting on tables. I worked every day of the week from 6am to 10 or llpm with (if I was lucky) a two-hour break in the afternoon. In four months on the job, I was given only one day off. It was a tough slog, but I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t be doing it forever. I was free to leave at any time and, in many respects, my experience differs vastly from that of Victorian-era maids such as Bessy Buckley, the heroine of my novel The Observations. Nonetheless, my brief brush with drudgery and sharing a home with employers was useful research for writing a novel narrated by a servant.

One of Bessy Buckley’s defining characteristics is her curiosity, particularly about her mistress Arabella. In her desire to understand this woman, 15 year-old Bessy eavesdrops on her conversations and snoops among her private papers. Historically, such curiosity in servants was acknowledged to be cause for anxiety. Author Geraldine Jewsbury wrote to a friend in 1852, warning: “With regard to that little servant of yours I would not keep her if I were you; such a development of curiosity will surely be fatal to any mistress under the sun. It will not confine itself to inspecting letters, and all that, but it will show itself in listening to private conversations, and in prying into all your comings and goings; and servants are so coarse in all their thoughts that they can understand nothing they see, but put the most abominable construction on all that passes . . . That girl will do you a mischief if she stays with you, and me, too, if she gets hold of this letter . . .”

Reader, I too was nosy. The life of a drudge is by its very nature dull and my working day was enlivened mainly watching my employers interact with each other and with tradesmen and hotel guests. Late at night, while Jill propped up the bar with one of her many “ex-army” cronies, I eavesdropped on their conversations while pretending to polish the gantry. Later in the season, once I had changed jobs, I would watch through the kitchen window as Marcel (a show-off and a bully) strutted around the terrace, bragging to his cronies as they drank their morning aperitif.

Of course, this was long before I had begun to write fiction but, in retrospect, it seems that I was already engaged in one of the writer’s key pursuits – spying. Unlike the servant mentioned by Geraldine Jewsbury, I didn’t pry into my employers’ private things – but I suspect this was due to lack of opportunity rather than moral scruples, since my access to their accommodation was limited. I do remember the delight among staff when one of the chambermaids discovered copies of Penthouse and Hustler under Jill’s mattress. And I was fascinated by the glimpses I had of Marie’s private life – her scary, saturnine boyfriend, with his crossbows and his Doberman (what is it about these people and dogs?).

It is unlikely that my curiosity was returned. My bosses were too preoccupied with their own lives to wonder about mine. Yet many ladies and gentlemen in the nineteenth century were intrigued by the ‘otherness’ of the working class and found their servants fascinating. The Observations was partly inspired by reading about a couple who enjoyed breaking taboos: Arthur Munby, a Victorian upper-class gentleman, and Hannah Cullwick, the maidservant he eventually married. Certain aspects of their 54-year relationship might seem shocking. For instance, Cullwick wore a padlock and chain around her neck, to which only Munby had the key. She called him â??Massa’. She washed his feet, and licked his boots. Munby was besotted by Cullwick in particular, but he had a life-long obsession for working-class women in general. He questioned them in the street, wrote endless notes about them, sketched them and commissioned photographs of them. His particular fetish was for the telltale signs of working class life: grime, rough skin and muscularity. After he and Cullwick met in 1854, he encouraged her to keep diaries that itemized every monotonous detail of her work, dwelling on the dirt and hard graft. These diaries, he would later pour over in private.

Similarly, in The Observations, Bessy’s mistress requests that she keep a journal documenting not only what she does, but what she thinks and feels. Bessy, like Cullwick, is happy to oblige. Arabella’s fascination with her maids stems partly from boredom. She longs to get inside Bessy’s head, to discover what makes her tick, whilst Bessy, in turn, yearns to understand Arabella. The novel’s title, The Observations, plays on this mutual voyeurism – who, in fact, is observing whom?

Presumably, all this prying and spying was made easier because most servants and employers lived under the same roof. Attempts were made to keep the classes apart by designing houses in such a way that staff were concealed behind a baize door, or below stairs. Their bedrooms were in basements or tucked away in attics. Often, they had to use separate staircases. Despite this, it seems that neither employer nor servant had a real sense of privacy. The middle and upper classes felt (probably rightly) that they were under constant observation. Domestics – those who were lucky enough not to be sleeping under the kitchen table – often shared quarters. And ultimately, even if they did have their own room, it was in the home of their master and mistress, who were free to come and go as they chose.

Such lack of privacy can become oppressive for all concerned. During my winter in the Alps, the demands of work and shared space meant that time alone was rare. At Yvonne’s hotel, the only moments of privacy I had were in my afternoon break, and when I took out the rubbish (which involved a short trip down the street to the bins), and each night, in the few seconds between climbing the stairs to my garret and falling into bed, unconscious. Yet not even this room was out of bounds to others: Yvonne changed my bed linen, which meant that she went in and out regularly, something that always made me uncomfortable. The lack of privacy affected us all. As the season progressed, Marcel, the chef (Yvonne’s husband, and therefore my employer by proxy) became increasingly territorial about space in the tiny kitchen. He hated staff (i.e. me) to leave anything in areas that he considered to be his domain. One day, he lost his temper and – with a magic marker – drew lines down the walls and across all the kitchen surfaces to demarcate which areas belonged to him and which I could use. In the end, this backfired on him (as I will explain later) but for a while I was permitted to occupy only certain areas of the kitchen and to wash pots only once he had set them down in my territory. But Marcel was insecure. He wasn’t a trained chef at all and was in his job simply because he was married to the hotel’s owner. And I was uppity: I didn’t really carry myself like a professional scrubber. I dressed well. I had been to university. He didn’t like it.

The fact is, servants – and those in the service industry – are meant to know their place. Employees who act above their station cause anxiety. The worry for those in charge is that they might be confused with those beneath them. This fear often centres on the issue of appearance and clothing. Yvonne and her sister would roll their eyes whenever I showed up in a different outfit. In the nineteenth century, Punch magazine regularly ran cartoons of servant girls prinked up in fashionable frocks. And in Henry and Augustus Mayhew’s “The Greatest Plague of Life; or, the Adventures of a Lady in Search of a Good Servant”, the narrator complains about her ostentatiously-dressed maid: “If she hadn’t on each side of her head got a bunch of long ringlets . . . hanging half down to her waist, and a blonde-lace cap, with cherry-coloured rosettes, and streamers flying about nearly a yard long; while on looking at her feet, if the conceited bit of goods hadn’t got on patent leather shoes.” Such showy clothing was a threat. Until the early nineteenth century, it was easy to distinguish mistress from maid because of the obvious difference between poor quality and expensive fabrics. However, with the arrival of cheap cotton and better manufacturing methods, the lower classes could dress much like their employers. As a result, servants’ uniforms were introduced so that, at a glance, it was possible to tell who was giving – and who was taking – the orders.

The upper classes may not have desired their staff to be well-dressed, but they did want them made better in other ways. Mrs Beeton and her ilk considered the improvement of servants to be one of the most important duties of the householder. Usually, this meant moral and religious improvement, rather than anything that might really broaden their minds or improve their prospects. The servant who read books was a dangerous servant. In similar vein, I remember well the suspicion that my own reading elicited in my bosses. One of the few times it was possible to read was during meals. However, Yvonne and Marcel decreed that books were not allowed at the table. Allegedly, this was so that I would join in their conversations, thereby improving my French language skills. However, as far as I was concerned, I listened to them talking all day; 30 minutes more at lunchtime wouldn’t make much difference. And I suspected that, in truth, their objection to my paperbacks was that they were threatened by any overt display of learning. In some ways, my employers were right to be wary of me. Everything that they did and said was stored away in my brain. Dreadful bosses like Jill and Ted have the most to fear from their staff. I was only too happy to gossip about them with co-workers. And we did worse than gossip. We sniggered at Ted’s affection for his incredibly phallic snow-blower. We raided the fridge when we weren’t given enough food. And one of us (not me) broke into the office and took a large sum of cash.

In the past, the upper classes tended to take for granted that servants were prone to such dishonesty and maliciousness. Novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth century – such as Wuthering Heights and Rebecca – often played on these fears of lower class characters finding outlets for their resentment. Satirist Jonathon Swift’s “Directions to Servants” is an ironic set of instructions, imbued with the notion that servants do nothing but take advantage of their masters, by rebellion, contrariness, cheek and petty theft: “Whatever good Bits you can pilfer in the Day, save them to junket with your Fellow-servants at Night, and take in the Butler, provided he will give you Drink . . . . If you are so often teized to shut the Door that you cannot easily forget it, then give the Door such a Clap as you go out, as will shake the whole Room, and make every Thing rattle in it, to put your Master and Lady in Mind that you observe their Directions . . . Take all Tradesmens Parts against your Master, and when you are sent to buy any Thing, never offer to cheapen it, but generously pay the full Demand. This is highly to your Master’s Honour, and may be some Shillings in your pocket and you are to consider, if your Master hath paid too much, he can better afford the loss than a poor Tradesman.”

Essentially, it’s all about those in service reclaiming power. Snooping to gain information; wearing smart, (therefore intimidating) clothes; encroaching upon space; pilfering; having pastimes, such as reading, which improve your status – all these are ways of restoring the balance.

My own revenges against my employers were less spectacular. Eventually, having had quite enough of Jill and Ted, I walked out, leaving them short-handed in the middle of a busy lunchtime service. Je ne regrette rien – to be honest, they deserved worse. I do feel a little guilty about the one small act of revenge I inflicted upon Yvonne and her husband, not long after he had drawn lines all over the kitchen. A great dinner was planned at which they hoped to impress some local dignitaries. Beef was on the menu and Marcel had concocted an elaborate mixture of wine and herbs in which the meat had soaked for days. He planned to use this marinade as the basis for the sauce. On the afternoon of the party, he and Yvonne lifted out the beef to examine its progress, but made the mistake of setting the pot of marinade on my side of the line. Quick as a flash, I treated it as I would any dirty pan, chucking the contents down the sink and plunging it into soapy water. When they turned back to retrieve the precious marinade, it had swirled down the plughole, lost forever.

At the time, I treasured the look of devastation on their faces, just as one of Swift’s resentful servants might have done. But these days, now that the ordeal of those winter months is but a distant memory, I do admit to a slight feeling of regret.