Wednesday, April 04, 2012


One of the most interesting characters in Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart (1938) is Matchett, the head servant who works for Anna and Thomas, in whose house Thomas's half-sister, Portia, lives (and, through her inability to recognize a cad when she meets one, begins to wreak havoc). Matchett is simultaneously a comforting mothering confessor figure for young Portia and a forbidding, judgmental watcher. She sees all and claims not to judge, but exchanges tend to move along lines like the following, which comes when Portia has just returned from a spring holiday at the seaside:
"You know, Matchett, I did enjoy myself."

Matchett gave another sideways look at the clock, as though admoninishing time to hurry for its own sake. Her air became more non-committal than ever; she appeared to be hypnotised by the speed of her knitting, and, at the same time, for her own private pleasure, to be humming an inaudible tune. After about a minute, she receipted Portia's remark with an upward jerk of the chin. But the remark had, by that time, already wilted in the below stairs dusk of this room--like, on the mantelpiece, the bunch of wild daffodils, some friend's present, thrust so sternly into a glass jar. These, too, must have been a gift that Matchett no more than suffered.

"You're glad, aren't you?" Portia more faintly said.

"The things you do ask. . . . "
Matchett's mix of passive aggression and raised eyebrows called to mind one of Virginia Woolf's pungent comments about servants, which I encountered in Alison Light's amazing Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury (2008):
Having one's affairs inspected by servants, Virginia wrote, was like "frying in greasy pans."
For anyone who wants to try to understand what it was like to be or to employ a servant, Light's book is indispensable. Her research is amazing, conjuring up the lives of people who, though they played crucial parts in the lives of the Woolfs, left few overt traces in the countless histories of the couple and their circle. In addition, she enables us to both see Woolf's blindness to the human actuality of her servants and to understand why she saw them, and understood her relationship with them, that way. The servants were not really to be thought about--fretted over, perhaps, with their snooping and stealing and moodiness--but not thought about. They were just there. The best servant, Light explains, "was a kind of absent presence." Bowen tells us, of Matchett,
No one knew that she slept, that she went to bed: at nights she just disappeared.
In the introduction to Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, Light writes,
Like other upper-middle-class girls, Virginia Stephen lived a cosseted existence, cared for by the servants. She'd been kept clean, fed and watered by them ever since the nursery. She woke to find the curtains drawn and jugs of water placed beside her wash-basin; her clothes--mended, laundered, brushed--were laid out for her; there was help on hand for buttoning boots or putting up her hair with the wretched pins. Of course no one in her circle shopped for food, let alone cooked an egg, or picked up their own clothes from the floor. For young ladies like Miss Stephen, servants were largely unremarkable, simply the backdrop to the greater and more interesting drama of growing up.
Even more telling--even jaw-dropping--is a moment Light describes from 1929:
By three o'clock the Woolfs were alone--a complete and utter novelty. It is worth emphasizing. They had never been alone before in their own home.
The Woolfs had at that point been married for seventeen years.

Which isn't to say that there wasn't pleasure (and power) in the servants' part as well. Bowen is convincing when she depicts Matchett's pride, masochistic though it may be, in her spring cleaning:
She had had her way like a fury. Tensed on the knitting needles (for she could not even relax without some expense of energy) her fingers were bleached and their skin puckered, like the skin of old apples, from unremitting immersion in hot water, soda, soap. Her nails were pallid, fibrous, their tips split. Light crept down the sooty rockery, through the bars of the window, to find no colour in Matchett: her dark blue dress blotted the light up. She looked built back into the half darkness behind her apron's harsh gaze. In her helmet of stern hair, a few new white threads shone--but behind the opaqueness of her features control permitted no sag of tiredness. There was more than control here: she wore the look of someone who has augustly fulfilled herself. Floor by floor over the basement towered her speckless house, and a reckoning consciousness of it showed like eyes through the eyelids she lowered over her knitting.
The amount of work that went into making that satisfaction, however, while Matchett's employers were blithely on holiday, is staggering:
The spring cleaning had been thorough. Each washed and polished object stood roundly in the unseeing air. The marbles glittered like white sugar; the ivory paint was smoother than ivory. Blue spirit had removed the winter film from the mirrors; now their jet-sharp reflections hurt the eye; they seemed to contain reality. The veneers of cabinets blazed with chestnut light. Upstairs and downstairs, everything smelt of polish; a clean soapy smell came out from behind books. And crisp from the laundry, the inner net curtains stirred over windows reluctantly left open to let in the April air with its faint surcharge of soot. Yes, already, with every breath that passed through the house, pollution was beginning.
That sooty pollution, as Judith Flanders explains in Inside the Victorian Home (2003), was inescapable:
Coal residue was omnipresent, both as dust as coal was carried to each fireplace, and then, after the fires were lit, as soot thrown out by the fire, blackening whatever it touched.
So every day the battle was waged anew. The spring cleaning may have been an extraordinary undertaking, but the everyday household routine itself is astonishing. Here, also from Flanders's fascinating book, is a passage from the 1860 diary of Hannah Cullwick, a maid of all work:
Opened the shutters & lighted the kitchen fire. Shook my sooty things in the dusthole & emptied the soot there. Swept & dusted the rooms & the hall. Laid the hearth & got breakfast up. Clean'd 2 pairs of boots. Made the beds & emptied the slops. Clean'd & wash'd the breakfast things up. Clean'd the plate; clean'd the knives & got the dinner things up. Clean'd away. Clean'd the kitchen up; unpac'd a hamper.
And on and on. Little of which, it seems, was appreciated. Flanders cites some of the then-standard guides to managing servants:
All this was regarded as normal, and not too much for one person. Indeed, Mrs. Beeton thought that "a bustling and active girl will always find time to do a little needlework for herself, if she lives with consistent and reasonable people. In the summer evenings she should manage to sit down for two or three hours, and for a short time in the afternoon in leisure days." Mrs. Warren agreed, adding that in her daily tasks, not too much equipment should be given to the maid-of-all-work, as any girl, no matter how much work she had to get through, "Should find time to wash three cloths in a day," for constant reuse. "Cre-fydd," the pseudonymous author of a housekeeping manual, conflated effort and result when she said that if every room was thoroughly turned out once a week, including washing the paintwork, beating the carpets, cleaning the windows, and brushing the walls and curtains, "the house is always clean, and with very little labour."
Simple as that! . . . until the next day, when it all had to begin again. "Now, you get off my table, there's a good girl," says Matchett to Portia,
"while I plug in the iron: I've got some pressing to do."

Portia said, in a hardly alive voice: "I thought you said you had finished everything."

"Finished? You show me one thing that is ever finished, let alone everything. No, I'll stop when they've got me screwed into my coffin, but that won't be because I've got anything finished."
An old girlfriend once explained that she liked washing dishes because they were "finite objects in an infinite task." I feel the same way as I stand at the sink--but there's a difference in doing it for yourself rather than for your masters, and in not having to go from the sink to the rugs to the floors to the fireplace . . . We can never be sure who or how we would have been had we lived in the past, what cruel blind spots we likely would have had. Trying to sympathetically imagine the world of Victorian and Edwardian servants makes me grateful for my small sink of few dishes, and glad that changes in culture, class relations, and technology have enabled me to be able to--and to expect to--do for myself in those areas.

No comments:

Post a Comment