The enduring class system is a dismal fact about life in Britain. I read Lucy Lethbridge’s Servants (2013) for entertainment and made myself thoroughly miserable.
Not only all those cramped and wasted lives spent below stairs at the constant beck and call of aristocratic whimsy but the perversity the plentiful labour supply encouraged in the ruling class. The era of the servant flourished in later Victorian times, reaching a height on the eve of the Great War, when one in seven women was in domestic employment. After 1918 the attitudes were never the same again, and although servants abounded, the cost of maintaining those great country estates where as many as two hundred were employed became prohibitive. Two cheers for that. Still, between the wars even women in the twentieth century wept to see their daughters forced by economic circumstances in to service instead of enjoying a freer life. All the detail and some wonderful anecdotes are contained in Lethbridge’s neatly written book. Among those that stick in the mind are the sheer pointlessness of what masters and mistresses asked for, just because the servants were there. Toast cut with a serrated pastry cutter to fit the exacted dimensions of the poached egg; boiled eggs that had to be stirred, lest their yolks got decentred, and which were sent back if those yellow bits did hug to one side; pillow cases sent back for relaundering and ironing if they showed the slightest crease: what were these grotesque folk about? As it turns out they were often lonely and emotionally deprived, and as the years went on, especially in post-Edwardian times, the servants became the children’s only source of emotional support, their parents being by culture too distant.
What especially struck me though were the affectations that unwittingly I picked up as late as the 1970s, with regard to English upper-class cultural norms. The shabby chic that the right kind of house required was a pathetic middle-class calque on the aristocracy’s centuries-long reluctance to update its surroundings. Lethbridge catalogues the aristos who insisted on candlelight more than fifty years after the introduction of gas lamps, and required a servant always to be on hand with flat-iron and brown paper less wax drop in the wrong place. She notes those who in 1900 imposed cleaning tools on staff that would have been familiar to their predecessors in 1700. As vacuum cleaners, washing machines and so on, were invented each was the subject of snobbish denigration. That the aristocracy set such a standard is surely a powerful reason why modernism as a way of life, with the functional architecture and functional furniture, never took off in this country, for the people who had the money to commission it rarely were adventurous enough in taste and socially desperately insecure. They condemned as vulgar any who did.
If you’re English, read Lethbridge to see where your taste comes from, and/or what your mother’s or grandmother’s was. So much of it used to be bound up with attitudes to labour: someone else’s, paid for, or one’s own. I’ve mostly done my own labouring, not because of my aristocratic connections but because I grew up with an anti-consumerist aesthetic. (I read Marx in a particular way.) Also I knew that a great deal of satisfaction lurked in a touch of the manual life.
I only didn’t inflict the mangle on anyone else. Have servants? Me? I wanted to do the hard work and get the pleasure out of it myself. Have you ever put the edge of a soaking wet bed sheet between two long thin cylinders with a tiny gap between, and cranked the iron handle beside? It’s quite a moment when first the material catches, and resists the squeeze, before relenting as the water streams out and your sheets for tomorrow emerge smooth and flat.
I still make my own food from scratch, another choice for which Lethbridge provides a context. Homemade food was part of aristocratic England’s snobbish resistance to all things industrial. Today I suppose it’s just a lifestyle, though if you want your labour choices to have any meaning let history like this shine a light.