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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