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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Victorian Servants

In Essex, where I live in the United Kingdom, we've been suffering from Arctic conditions. During the worst of the weather, when we had several inches of snow, we ran out of central heating fuel. For the next six days I was forced to experience conditions that would have been quite normal 150 years ago. I like to be accurate with my research, but this was taking it a step too far. Then I remembered that as a child I often scraped ice of the inside of my bedroom window, and used to take my clothes into bed with me and get dressed under the covers.
This made me think about what it must have been like for the thousands of men, women and children who went into service. In many written accounts of domestic life it's the large households and well-to-do who feature prominently because it was there that service was seen at its most spectacular. However, most households which had servants, employed only one or two maids, and perhaps a washerwoman to help with the laundry. These women would work for their keep and lodgings and maybe £5 per annum.
In Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, set in the 1830s, the heroine was paid only £30 a year to run the village school at Morton, but was also been supplied with a young maid servant to carry out domestic chores while she was teaching.
Here is a brief outline of what a maid-of-all-work would be expected to do, when she got up at dawn, taken from a book written at the time.
"The first business will be to light the kitchen fire, brush up and clean around the grate and fire place, take up the ashes, sweep the floor and hearth, and having made all quite clean, rinse out the tea kettle, and set it on the fire, with clean spring water, preparatory to the family breakfast; and also another kettle to heat water for household purposes. She next takes the tray, carpet broom, hair-broom, hearth- rug, a clean dry duster, the basket or box containing the brushes, rags, leathers, brick-dust, scouring-powder and other things for cleaning the grate and the fireplace, and proceeds to the parlour, or sitting room to get that in order, before the family comes down to breakfast."
Good grief! and this was before she started her real work. I'm exhausted just reading about it. I'll tell you about what happened with the laundry next time. In my latest book, The Ghosts at Neddingfield Hall,(Robert Hale) the servants have vanished along with their mistress. A groom is forced to act as temporary cook until replacements can be found. A large house couldn't be run without the help of these anonymous people.
I have no interest whatsoever in housework, I've not met many writers who feel differently. I'm ashamed to admit that I only give the house a real clean when we are having visitors. To quote a family saying, 'Life's too short to stuff a mange-tout.'
Fenella Miller


Joyce Moore said...

Oh, Fenella, you are so right!Years ago we asked Mama if she regretted anything. She said her only regret was that she spent too much time cleaning and not enough with her girls (4 of us). Great blog. Loved reading about the chores (Cinderella-like, weren't they?_ and the pittance they rec'd in payment. Enjoyed the read!

Linda Banche said...

Great blog. Those poor servants worked very hard for their pittances of a wage. I hope most of them were treated well.

And the housework will be there forever. Do what's important and forget about the rest. On our deathbeds, we'll never say "I wish I had done more housework."

Fenella J Miller said...

My daughter says my house is a health hazard!! But then she's been known to start wiping the dining table with a bleach-soaked cloth whilst we're still eating.
My son's equally house proud -must be because they grew up with me!!