Serf Advisory

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

Why did I employ a cleaning woman when I couldn't afford health insurance? I paid Nelly to take care of my small apartment because, not unlike Swift's landed gentry, I didn't know how to keep house myself and it didn't seem quite possible to learn. There appeared to be art and magic to it. The paradoxical aspect of my first act of firing was that for years I missed Nelly terribly. I still think about her. This wasn't guilt. I missed the brilliant floors and origami foldings. In the overall economy of my life a few knives would have been worth the trade.

Now that I have children, the conversations I hear about hired help take on a very different tenor. As often as not, women (particularly new mothers) are terrified of losing their nannies, because they have no idea themselves how to get their children to sleep or eat. I heard a woman I've always liked say, "I have more nannies than I do children, and I still can't get anything done." She was being modest; she gets a great deal done (she produces movies and collects American antiques—she once found a Christmas tree made entirely of chicken feathers—and in her spare time makes stationery for friends on a hand letterpress).

My Santa Monica jeweler told me last December that he did more business with women coming in for their nannies' presents than with men shopping for their mistresses, mothers, daughters, and wives put together. For generations women have been puzzling over the ethics and etiquette of "having" help. The very verb is troubling—what boys of my generation said about the girls they'd laid—because "help" has traditionally helped us with what is still, no matter the opinion of weekly newsmagazines and polite company, our responsibility first and last. Though most men I know certainly no longer assume that housework and child care are exclusively or even primarily their wives' responsibility (and play with their children far more than their fathers ever did), I've seen very few of those same men at the nurse's station midday, leading a sick child to the Passat station wagon to be taken home.

The ubiquitous Colm Tóibín, noting in his introduction that Swift remained "all of his life unsure of his own status," writes,

In the household of Sir William Temple where he had lived as a young man, his duties included reading aloud to his patron and keeping the household accounts. Temple's nephew, who did not like him, later insisted that Swift was not allowed to sit at table with the family.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I entered many mansions through the service door. My mother was a speech therapist who sometimes worked in private houses and took me along. Like Swift never literally a servant, I nevertheless understood instinctively that the child of the person being paid must take the smaller piece of cake and put up with a few kicks. It wasn't a big deal in my childhood (private families only constituted extra work for my mother; her primary job was teaching stroke victims in convalescent hospitals to talk again), but it left me more impudent than independent.

Of course, the real slave is never the one to talk. The darker reaches of servitude, the shame internalized when we clean up after others for money, the combined feelings of humiliation and fury and stubborn blockage (what Chekhov meant when he said "it will be many years before the slave is beaten out of us"), are for the most part left out of Swift's guide. It's a celebration of pluck and wit, and Swift doesn't delve—as did Primo Levi, for instance—into the souls of those whose lives are shaped by others' control and need.

Yet the strongest chord in the book sounds when Swift approaches these painful matters—as here, in his advice to the footman:

Be not proud in prosperity. You have heard that fortune turns on a wheel; if you have a good place, you are at the top of the wheel. Remember how often you have been stripped and kicked out of doors; your wages are taken up beforehand and spent in translated red-heeled shoes, second-hand toupées, and repaired lace ruffles, besides a swingeing debt to the alewife and the brandy-shop. The neighbouring tapster, who before would beckon you over to a savoury bit of ox-cheek in the morning, give it to you gratis, and only score you up for the liquor, immediately after you were packed off in disgrace, carried a petition to your master to be paid out of your wages, whereof not a farthing was due, and then pursued you with bailiffs into every blind cellar. Remember how soon you grew shabby, threadbare and out at heels; was forced to borrow an old livery coat to make your appearance while you were looking for a place, and sneak to every house where you have an old acquaintance to steal you a scrap, to keep life and soul together, and, upon the whole, were in the lowest station of life, which, as the old ballad says, is that of a skip-kennel turned out of place. I say remember all this now, in your flourishing condition.

Swift remembered. He remembered all his life.

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

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