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.

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.