Monday, April 16, 2012

"Not fit to be put in a servant's bedroom!"

P. Y. Betts's charming memoir of a just-post-Edwardian childhood, People Who Say Goodbye (1989)--which is available in a lovely hardcover from Slightly Foxed Editions, whose glorious publishing niche is the charming minor memoir of childhood--included a couple of passages that seemed worth pointing out in light of my recent post about English servants. Betts grew up in a modest middle-class home, which at that time meant that her mother was able to employ a single servant (to help with things like washday, which began at 4 A.M. in order to be finished within the day), and Betts's account of the servant in residence when she first came to consciousness, while loving, gave me pause:
Clara had been my newly married parents' first little maid-servant, a fourteen-year-old up from Somerset.
A century later, it's hard to even begin to fathom what that must have been like, for Clara or the family. I realize that fourteen in 1910 was an age of work--the some of Clara's contemporaries were going down the mines--but to be confronted with it in that was makes it seem even more stark: a newlywed couple sets up house . . . with a teenager. A teenager who is there to clean up after them. Betts's mother, though harsh in many ways, seems to have been kind and understanding with servants--many of whom returned for visits over the years--but even so, only centuries-old rigidity of class boundaries could make such a situation anything but bizarre and uncomfortable for all concerned, no?

Betts and her parents, however, were light years beyond her mother's family, which lived, parents and her two older sisters, in an ostentatiously large house that declared that they had arrived among the upper classes. Betts has little good to say about her maternal grandparents; at one point, aged about ten, she says to her father, "I hate Grandpa, don't you?", receiving in reply the equivocal, "I might like him better if I saw less of him, but as it is I see the old so-and-so every day." They appear in their least pleasant aspect at Christmas, which they managed to turn into a stultifying obligation:
We would walk round the room saying, "Happy Christmas and thank you," to each seated figure in turn, and planting a kiss upon each cool or whiskered cheek. We would not be so much as glanced at except by Grandma, who would give us a warm kiss before slipping away to see to things, such as a bone for Paddy. As we kissed, so we would bestow, easing our botched-up parcelled offering into limp hands. We would be thanked in a toneless parroty way, as if the form had been memorised from an English phrasebook for foreigners. Our parcels were not opened. Soon the gong would go for Christmas dinner . . . and by the time we returned to the drawing-room after the meal, the presents we had given would have disappeared. We heard no more of them. They might have been shredded and engulfed by a waste disposal unit, had such refinements existed then, for all the news we had of them.
Ah, but a bad present would be found out. One year Betts made notebook for her grandfather by hand:
I heard no more about it, but my mother was summoned by her father to account for the peculiar wretchedness of this present, at once valueless and badly made. As I heard much later, my mother let fly at her parent with both barrels of a righteous anger, not scrupling to draw the comparison between the image of the great and good benefactor he was careful to present to the children at the temperance orphanage and the cold, joyless old nit-picker his own grandchildren knew him to be.
One year, when she seems to have been about ten years old, Betts simply refused to participate in this ill-judged gift economy:
Evidently nothing pleased them, for whatever was given to them very likely went straight into the dustbin. It was disheartening.

"Here is three-and-six," I said to my mother. "Buy something with that if you must, but don't ask me to think about it."

My mother, starved of co-operation, ended up by buying a china dog which I never even saw.

This purchase, so uncharacteristic of my mother's normal shopping instincts, must have been undertaken in a moment when she was "not herself," torn apart in a consumer's schizoid panic between warring loyalties. I understood that the china dog, which I disdained to look at, was repellent to a degree. . . .

Barring the homemade notebook, this was the one present we ever heard mentioned again.

". . . and she gave me a china dog," exclaimed Aunt Ada in bitterness to my mother. ". . . a china dog not fit to put in a servant's bedroom!"
"Not fit to be put in a servant's bedroom" became, Betts gleefully tells us, a catchphrase in the family (aunts and grandparents excepted, of course):
Anything disliked or rejected, be it a pair of scuffed tennis shoes, a note sung flat, or a lump of unchewable gristle, was thereafter described as "not fit to put in a servant's bedroom."
The picture of nuclear family solidarity is winning, and the joke a good one--but it's hard not to wonder what the actual servant, overhearing, must have thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment