Daily Archives: 25 November 2016

‘It was exploitation, but it worked’

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2690-2710:

Ethel Mannin, the daughter of a postal sorter in Clapham, was a socialist, a feminist, a pacifist, and a leading supporter of progressive theories of education, family and sexuality. In 1920 she was just setting out in life, aged nineteen and married to John Porteous, an advertising copywriter. The couple had set up home in a small semi-detached house in the London suburb of Strawberry Hill. Ethel had a new baby and was a busy writer, at large in the first years of Modernism: ‘Living My Life’, was how she described it in her energetic capitals. A steady stream of romantic novelettes, churned out at a guinea per thousand words, provided Ethel’s income. The household kept a cook-general at thirty shillings a week, a sum Ethel considered generous (the going rate being twenty-five shillings). ‘Cap and apron, of course; blue cotton dress in the mornings; black cloth in the afternoons – and coffee-coloured caps and aprons were just that much smarter than plain white ones.’ Her socialist principles were apparently untroubled by the maid, who called her ‘Madam’ and who referred to her husband as ‘the Master’. As Mannin saw it, domestic help was a necessary component of her freedom. ‘It was snobbish; it was class distinction; it was exploitation but it worked,’ she wrote fifty years later. Educated, perceptive, imaginative, free-thinking, questioning, below the frenetic glitter of ‘the amoral decade, the Sweet and Twenties, the Bitter-Sweet Twenties, the gay Twenties, the Bright Twenties, the Roaring Twenties’, Ethel was more conventional than she had imagined herself at the time: ‘I probably gave [the maid] ten bob at Christmas and the occasional dress I was tired of. Quite intensely I dislike the memory of myself when young; but it’s the way I was. I was of my times; quintessentially.’

Though Ethel Mannin was later to write that ‘the war dealt a great blow to snobbishness’, the old awkwardness, the looming divide between women living under the same roof continued to be considered not just normal but necessary. When Rose Harrison first went to work as a lady’s-maid in the mid-twenties, her charge was Patricia Tufton, who was eighteen, the same age as Rose. ‘My relationship with Miss Patricia isn’t easy for me to describe. We weren’t friends, though if she were asked today she might deny this. We weren’t even acquaintances. We never exchanged confidences, never discussed people, nothing we said brought us closer; my advice might be asked about clothes or bits of shopping, but my opinions were never sought or given on her music, or the people we met or on anything that was personal to either of us, nor did I expect it or miss it at the time.’

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The Psychology of the Servant Problem

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2733-2769:

The author Ronald Blythe has suggested that in the years after the end of the First World War, a terrible shame and guilt crept over people at the sight of ‘unemployed ex-servicemen and their families, these hordes of shabby young men and women made spiritless, drab and ugly by broken promises, malnutrition and loss of hope’. It produced, Blythe went on, in the middle classes, a ‘contempt for working-class people of a kind quite unknown before the war began’….

Helen Campbell, American author of Household Economics, in 1907 defined one of the central paradoxes of the servant-master relationship, certainly as it was played out in the small home: ‘The condition of domestic servitude allows only the development of a certain degree of ability, not sufficient to perform our complex domestic industries. So there we are. When we find a person able to carry on modern household industries, that person will not be our servant. And when we find a person willing to be our servant, that person is unable to carry on modern household industries.’ Most people preferred not to look closely at the relationship, with its awkwardness and its responsibilities. One woman writer in the early twenties, however, was brave enough to address it full on, and with a refreshing determination to look its contradictions straight in the eye. Under the pseudonym Dion Fortune, Violet Firth went on to became a theosophist, occultist, psychic, a founder of the esoteric society, ‘The Fraternity of the Inner Light’, and the author of now long-forgotten works such as The Goat-Foot God and The Cosmic Doctrine. In the years immediately after the war, however, Firth was also a student of psychoanalysis, practising (under her own name) as a lay psychotherapist in London.

In 1925, she published a remarkable short polemic entitled The Psychology of the Servant Problem, which would be a work of radicalism in any age. Drawing on her years of war work as a gardener for a big country house, Firth examined what lay behind the intractable and inexplicable problem of what domestic service meant to those who had to perform it. She recognised, crucially, that what made service so difficult to define, and therefore to legislate for, was the hazy nature of the relationships in the home. ‘Because I was also a servant and had to come in at the back door, I got to know the minds and feelings of those girls I met during those three years,’ wrote Firth, pointing out that the disinclination of girls to become maids was not a matter only of wages but of something deeper: ‘being a servant is very painful to one’s self-respect and no amount of money will compensate that injury to anyone who has independence of spirit’.

Being a servant was an ‘identity’, not just a job. The Psychology of the Servant Problem was a call to the renewal of education for all women, of all classes, for domestic work to be regarded without sentimentality but with the same respect accorded to any other form of work. Firth actually looked forward to a time ‘when the home-help might freely be able to choose a husband from the family she serves’. The ‘servant problem’, as Firth saw it, was not one simply of demand outstripping supply, or of a failure in the ‘quality’ of the servants available, but of deeply held attitudes, of unexamined habits masquerading as unbreachable social certainties.

Violet Firth was far ahead of her time, grasping the knotty contradictions of domestic labour that were to characterise the theme during the rest of the century. How are women to enjoy the fruits of education and liberation if they are not relieved of the burden of domestic work in the person of another woman? When Frances Marshall, intellectual and Bloomsbury set member, set up home with Ralph Partridge in their first flat in Bloomsbury in the late 1920s, she employed a maid, a ‘frightened, middle-aged spinster’, who came to ‘do for us’: poor shadowy Mabel, one of the lonely civilian casualties of war. Frances took care not to tell her that she and Ralph were unmarried lest her respectable sensibilities be shocked. ‘Who bought the bacon, the butter, the fish? I suspect it was our faithful Mabel. I’ve no recollection of doing it myself.’

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