Serf Advisory

A practical guide for hired help, from the eighteenth century to ours

Hesperus Press's elegant reissue of Jonathan Swift's slim, unfinished Directions to Servants seems particularly relevant now, when servants in America, though they're not typically called servants, are as common in upper-middle-class households as they were in Chekhov's plays. Which of his disillusioned doctors or dreamy heroines could have imagined that in a hundred years we would still be worrying the problems of love and despair while eating meals and sleeping in beds made by serfs? In today's professional class many women work, the men work even more, and the household, if it runs at all, is run by somebody else.

Directions to Servants lacks the central conceit and driving polemic of A Modest Proposal, but delivers a gallery of sharp miniatures, in aggregate asserting the eternal spunk, appetite, ultimate dignity, and humanity of servants. The premise is the old, satisfying one of the help outsmarting their masters. At its lowest Swift's humor would appease a nine-year-old boy's cravings for bathroom gags, with slapstick not all that much more sophisticated than the upstairs-downstairs joke of the cook's peeing in the soup. Those moments are brief, though. Swift once wrote to Pope that his aim was "to vex the world rather than divert it," and in these vignettes he's most diverting when he's at least partly serious, which is fortunate, because here in California, at least, with its enormous pool of illegal immigrants, there are numerous unintentionally comic gems in the public library, as funny as Swift's jokes about chamber pots. One is Margaret Storm's Home Maid, a Spanish cookbook (first published in the 1960s, when, apparently, "Spanish food" was a synonym for "Mexican food"), with its helpful foreword.

This is not a book of Mexican or Spanish recipes. Our aim is not to teach Mexican or Spanish-speaking household help how to make their native dishes. They can do that to perfection without our help. We want to have them help you in the kitchen doing things your way.

Another is Linda Radke's guide to contemporary domestic employment, subtitled "If the Dog Likes You, You're Hired."

Swift's book takes its form from instruction manuals to servants in a great house. It's broken into many sections, according to job title, and addresses the servant in question directly with specific advice. Swift includes the butler, the cook, the footman, the coachman, the groom, the housekeeper, the chambermaid, the waiting-maid, the housemaid, the children's maid, the nurse, the laundress, the dairymaid, the house steward, the land steward, the porter, and the tutoress (notably with only one small paragraph devoted to the caretaking of the great house's children). Today a staff list for a big house on the west side of Los Angeles—while including some overlaps (the housemaid, the laundress, the cook) and a few obvious substitutions (the dog walker replacing the groom, the town-car service replacing the coachman, the gardener and the pool man together replacing the land steward)—would minimally require several additions, most involving the pleasure, nurture, and furtherance of the youngest members of the household: first nanny, second nanny, (additional nannies, up to and sometimes exceeding the actual number of children), math tutor, music teacher, swim instructor, sports babysitter, child shrink, "parenting" guru.

In Swift's day there were many castes of servants—as there are now, though perhaps we're reluctant to talk about these hierarchies. In contemporary California and New York there's an abundance of immigrant help—often illegal, hardworking, Spanish-speaking, without driver's licenses and green cards—and then there's the other kind of help: educated, expensive, and as indistinguishable from the employer as possible. One of the teachers at the private elementary school in Santa Monica my children attend went along to Europe as the "companion" for a television agent's children; a male babysitter I once tried to hire had to cancel the trial week because his girlfriend wanted him to accompany her to a funeral, which required him to be on Steven Spielberg's jet rather than at five-pitch practice with my eight-year-old. I've learned of more than one family that—upon returning from vacation—has relocated a nanny from Hawaii after the hotel babysitter proved more talented than the one at home.

Before I had children, I heard the occasional complaint about hired help: the Chanel dress, left draped over a chair, that was machine washed and tumble dried by a too-zealous cleaning woman; the housekeeper who sprayed an Ansel Adams mural with Windex. (Fortunately, the owner had two of them.) I once received a call from the friend who'd recommended Nelly, the woman who tidied and scrubbed my apartment every third Wednesday morning; the friend had come to an alarming realization about her forks: only one was left. Another friend to whom she'd referred Nelly, and whom she'd just now called, discovered that she no longer possessed any spoons. "Check your knives," my friend advised.

My flatware (which had been nipped from the airlines, so some of my diminutive place settings said both AA and "The Friendly Skies") remained intact in my dishwasher. Nonetheless, I fired Nelly too, with a vague excuse about traveling a lot. (Nelly recognized the lie for what it was; after all she was often enough the one who packed my suitcase for me.)

Leaving aside the odd fact that though I was twenty-five years old, living on little more than $9,000 a year in New York City, I employed a cleaning woman, it's worth mentioning that Nelly did more than clean; she taught me what was wrong with my domestic life at the same time she fixed it. My kitchen floor, for instance, which I'd never realized looked so dismal (wax buildup, I was taught to recognize), needed to be stripped, on hands and knees, and then polished again, into something like grandeur. Even more intimately, Nelly packed ingeniously, everything rolled and tucked and unwrinkled when I took it out.

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Mona Simpson is the author of four novels, including Anywhere But Here and Off Keck Road.

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