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The Assistance of Servants

Her wisdom, too, limited the number of their servants to three; two maids and a man, with whom they were speedily provided from amongst those who had formed their establishment at Norland.
Sense and Sensibility

Never before had England seen such an increase in the middle classes. Technological advances during Jane Austen’s lifetime gave way to the Industrial Revolution two decades later, but it’s effects were already reshaping societal lines. As the rich got richer, many of the poor found employment as well. With an influx of ready cash, landowners were more than willing to spend it on domestic help. Some of it was necessary. Much of the hiring was an attempt to ape the upper classes. The wealthier you were, the less you did for yourself.

As Daniel Pool observes, It would certainly not have occurred to nineteenth-century English gentlemen to do [manual work], nor could Victorian ladies undertake housework either. That was, after all, the whole point of being a lady — you didn’t do anything, except tell the servants what to do, receive your callers, and work on your embroidery or perhaps paint decorative flowers on the fire screen for the hearth.” *

In Jane Austen’s novels, we find no family below hiring servants. Even the impoverished and slovenly Price family has two housemaids. The number of servants a family could employ reflected on their social status, and, as was typical of the time, the more the better. The Martins, in Emma, are just such an up and coming family, hoping to add to their respectability with the addition of superfluous servants, “they live very comfortably. They have no indoors man, else they do not want for any thing; and Mrs Martin talks of taking a boy another year.” Still, the old middle class represented by the Woodhouses disliked mingling with these aspiring newcomers, “a farmer can need none of my help, and is, therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as in every other he is below it.”

The Bennets are more typical of a comfortable, but not overly wealthy country Gentleman’s family with their butler, housekeeper, cook and two housemaids. Mrs. Bennet reveals her horror of household work when Mr. Collins, attempting to add yet another compliment to her dinner begs to know “to which of his fair cousins, the excellence of its cookery was owing. But here he was set right by Mrs Bennet, who assured him with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen”.

It may seem odd for a young man coming from the great estate of Rosings Park to even think of asking whether any of the principals of the house did the cooking, unless we recall that Jane Austen herself was responsible for preparing the breakfast (cake, toast, bread and butter, tea, coffee, and hot chocolate) at Chawton Cottage; a common enough occurrence in less fortunate families. When the Austen family moved to Bath in 1801, they were in reduced circumstances and had to rely on “the bare minimum” of servants for a family of four. She wrote of their plans to her sister, Cassandra, “My mother looks forward with as much certainty as you can do to our keeping two maids… We plan having a steady cook and a young, giddy housemaid, with a sedate, middle-aged man, who is to undertake the double office of husband to the former and sweetheart to the latter.”

In a household such as Longbourne, much of the day to day business would have been managed by the Housekeeper who was in charge of the maids and the cook and the Butler who was responsible for the male servants. Though not directly involved in meal preparation, Mrs. Bennet would have had an active role in their planning.

If young children were involved the number of essential personnel grew. An infant required a wet nurse if the mother was not to take full responsibility for its care. Later he would be turned over to a nursery maid (one of the more desired waiting positions). Nursery maids tended to be young teenagers charged with watching the children, taking them out for their daily walks and keeping the nursery tidy. Still later he would be placed in the care of a Governess until being sent away to school, or, if a young lady, let “Out” in society.

The Governess by Sir Joshua Reynolds (July 16,  			1723 – February 23, 1792)The Bennets never did hire a governess for their daughters, though Austen’s wealthier families take advantage of such care and teaching. A Governess had the task of preparing a young person to meet the demands of society with grace and ease. She was responsible for imparting basic education along with language (French and Italian being preferred), early music, dancing, artistic pastimes such as drawing and painting, sewing and embroidery skills and some form of athletic exercise. Depending on the wealth of the family music, dancing and other skills might be polished by visiting masters. The Governess was in an unenviable position of being neither servant nor family member.

Becoming a Governess was one of the few occupational opportunities open to a well bred woman required to work. Jane Fairfax was one such young woman and the prospect was not appealing, “I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something — Offices for the sale — not quite of human flesh — but of human intellect…I was not thinking of the slave-trade… governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.” To be sure it was not all miserable and many young ladies found it an advantageous position. A few, such as Emma’s Miss Taylor were even able to marry into that class they had so long served.

When Elizabeth Bennet reflects that, “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” it is not just a large house and grand views that she was taking in. Becoming mistress of all this would be no easy task for the daughter of a country Gentleman. Though she claims “In marrying [Mr. Darcy], I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere [in which she has been brought up]. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” The reality would have been very different. Pemberley would have had an army of servants (and two or three French Cooks, at least!) Eaton Hall, home to the Duke of Westminster required 50 indoor servants to keep it running in good order. At 11,000 acres, this estate is one third the size of Chatsworth, thought by many scholars to be the inspiration for Pemberley. What would such a staff have looked like in 1800?


Hogarth’s Servants by William Hogarth c.1750.

Reporting to the master of the house would have been the Bailiff or Agent (both terms are used in Austen’s work) who would have been responsible for maintaining property concerns and collecting rent. In large houses, a Steward who would head all the interior staff including the Housekeeper and Butlers was also employed. On smaller estates, a Butler sufficed as head of the male staff. Reporting to the butler would be the footmen, grooms, coachmen, gamekeeper, gardener, valet and page (or “boy” as he was often called).

The Housekeeper was in charge of the entire female staff. She was in close contact with the mistress of the house and might also be under the direction of the Steward. The list of maids for specific chores often seems endless, but one cannot forget the cook(s), housemaids (upper and lower) scullery maids, chambermaids and the crème de la crème, the Ladies Maid. In the hierarchy of the serving class (16% of Britain’s population by 1891) the Ladies Maid was second only to the Housekeeper herself. Essential to the daily routine of social elite, she was responsible for her mistress’ clothes, hair and overall appearance and comfort. Ideally a Frenchwoman, she was a cut above the usual serving girl. She was required to be genteel as well as accomplished in the finer arts of style. She was often privy to the thoughts and feelings of her mistress, and close relationships were common. For this she was rewarded with first choice of her mistress’ discarded clothing. A Valet provided similar service for the Master of the House and in smaller homes, the Butler and Housemaid would serve the same purpose.

As you can see, it was easy to determine the size and status by an estate simply by reviewing the staff. Pemberley, Kellynch Hall, Donwell Abbey and Mansfield Park employ Agents and Stewards. Longbourne and Hartfield maintain Butlers. The Prices, Martins and Dashwoods can afford only two or three servants at most.

Austentation: Custom Made Regency Hats and Accessories
Laura Boyle is a fan of all things Austen. She runs Austentation: Regency Accessories, creating custom made hats, bonnets, reticules and more for customers around the globe.

* What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, Simon & Schuster/1993

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