Employers Past and Present

THE morning paper had been read and thrown aside, but a folded page of advertisements winked at me, and as I toyed with a last piece of toast I read the column idly. ‘Wanted, Female Help: high wages, no washing, no children, small family, small flat, all conveniences.’ Thousands of worried housewives materialized before me, kneeling in rows as it were, imploring the services of women-servants on their own terms. How little these would-be employers have in common with the mistresses of old times! Even poor Jane Eyre, in her two-room cottage, ordinarily dismissed her little servant ‘with the fee of an orange,’ while on the day of great cleaning, ‘scoured floors, polished grate, and well-rubbed chairs,’ a penny of pay gave ample satisfaction. The mere word ‘ dismissal ’ has disappeared from the palimpsest of domestic service. ‘Give notice’ is writ large in its place. Mr. Spratt and his wife clean the platter, not because the victuals are nicely apportioned to their respective appetites, but because the cook deprecates picking and choosing.

How others see us is an invariably instructive subject, often amusing and sometimes disciplinary. Horace Walpole relates how Mrs. Herbert, going in a hackney chair, found that her chairmen were excessively drunk. After tossing and jolting her for some minutes they set the chair down, and the foreman, lifting the top, reproached and warned her thus: ‘Madame, you are so drunk that if you do not sit still it will be impossible to carry you.’ Our domestics doubtless regard many of our conventions and artificialities as sheer intoxication. ‘Madame,’ said a sensible cook to her mistress who was in mourning, ‘if you must eat one of these days why not to-day?’ One of my friends, whose servants’ quarters are sunny, roomy, and delightful, has a maid who rents a dark little room in an alley flat, where she keeps a piano and some shabby furniture, and there in solitude she spends her weekly afternoon out.

No man is a hero to his valet: not because the hero is no hero, but because, in Mr. Crothers’s phrase, the valet is a valet. I remember how, in a moment of exasperation, after a whole flowerbed had been ruined, I burst out that it was maddening to have a servant with no judgment. ‘ If John had judgment along with his many good qualities,’ said my wise old father, ‘you could not keep him. He would be a capitalist, and you possibly his stenographer.’

Thus to the opinions that employer and servant hold of each other must be added that with which outsiders regard our team-work. Lady Holland took such good care of her servants that it used to be said that they were better off than her guests; and when coy Mrs. Winthrop refused to trouble her servant to light Judge Sewell home, he performed that perilous passage of old Boston streets angrily, ‘by starlight, Jehovah Jirah!’ The Prince de Ligne threw up astonished hands on learning from Catherine the Great that she had made her own fire that morning in order not to oblige her attendants to rise so early in the cold; and a countess entering her Majesty’s bedroom was amazed to find her alone, half dressed, with arms folded in the attitude of one patiently waiting because she was obliged to wait. ‘My maids have all deserted me,’ the Empress explained; ‘I had been trying on a dress which fitted so badly that I lost my temper, so they left me like this, and I am waiting till they cool down.’ Madame Geoffrin’s lecture to Fontenelle, when he was nearing his hundredth year, is well-known: ‘My friend, it is disgraceful that you have never made a will and thus are exposing your old servants to the risk of starvation.’ Whereupon she huddled him into her carriage, drove him forthwith to a notary, and dictated a will that seemed to her suitable. ‘ Madame is always right,’ the old man murmured, ‘but she is right in such a hurry.’

Probably the truest test of character is supplied by enforced association with those we govern or serve. Whether we wear a dictatorial maid like a hair shirt or like an old shoe, her grain of ingredient will somehow alter the whole chemical compound of our character. The de Goncourts had a maid, Rose, bequeathed to them by their mother. She watched over them twenty-three years. In her fatal illness, they took her to the best hospital, Jules carrying her in his arms to the cab. He kissed her before leaving her. On her death they felt orphaned anew. ‘What a blank in our home! The whole of our life was known to her. She opened our letters in our absence. She had charge of our keys, and for five-and-twenty years tucked us up in bed.’ After her death it was proved that she had run up debts and carried on astonishing deceptions. Probity most entire and rascality most complete were the two hands of her service. The de Goncourts never quite recovered their faith in women. Two years later they wrote their novel Germinie Lacerteux about her. Kant’s dissertation on a faithless servant was briefer. ‘Remember,’ he noted in his diary, ‘remember to forget Lampe.’

The lifelong habit of regarding those who served him as unfortunate friends made Philip Debarry, in Felix Holt, treat a servant more deferentially than an equal. On the other hand, Beethoven, who rose from the people, maintained deplorable relations with his servants, the continued misery he endured finding expression in scores of his letters and in not a few of his musical scores. He could make friends with his social superiors, but not with his inferiors.

Even so dogmatic a character as Doctor Johnson stood in awe of his servants, or vicarious awe. He used to go himself to buy oysters for his cat Hodge, lest, the maids, having that trouble, should take a dislike to the poor creature. When the personification of eighteenth-century dogmatism thus bent before the dominant domestic problem, we weaklings may be excused for occasionally quailing.