Friday, November 08, 2013

John Aubrey and the problems of servants

Some recent e-mail exchanges with critic and nonfiction writer Lee Sandlin--who has a new memoir of his family out--have sent me yet again back to Anthony Powell. Lee is re-reading A Dance to the Music of Time, and while that is what's tempting me--there's nothing more autumnal than to embark on yet another re-reading of those novels--I've thus far staved it off by dipping back into Powell's notebooks and, tonight, his biography of John Aubrey.

From which I draw the following amusing incident. Aubrey has been summoned by his patron, Lord Thanet, whom Powell describes as "pompous, facetious, and perhaps rather pathetic with his personal preoccupations and his scurvy." Courteously, Lord Thanet has sent a horse and groom; uncourteously, he has also sent some unusual instructions via letter:
By this Groome I have sent a horse and your Portmantue, and I hope your returne hither on him will be not faster than when we went hence to Folkestone, the horse being at grasse, and since myne, neaver used to hard rideing. Some two days since, the Groome being sent with my Coachman upon some business of mine, very fairely that day went to an Alehouse and there stayed most part of the day, for which fault I enjoyne him this pennance, being to have him retourne upon his faire feet without a Launce from Coldham hither, without soe-mutch as allowing a Jugge of beer by the way. Of this keep him in ignorance till you are on horseback, else disgusted with the penance, and by way of revenge, he may neglect it lookeing to the horse as he ought, and being ready to come out, then open the commission and show him.
As Powell points out, it would have been the better part of both honor and staff management for Lord Thanet to have handled the discipline himself rather than farm it out to Aubrey without so much as a by your leave,
especially when the latter [was] suffering financial embarrassments, which were certainly a matter of common knowledge; while for Aubrey, unusually benevolent to servants (often to the extent of being imposed upon) such instructions could have been nothing but disagreeable.
How could anyone with Aubrey's wide-ranging curiosity (to say nothing of laziness and disorganization) be anything but generous to servants? I like to assume that Aubrey read the letter, sized up the situation, and came to some sensible agreement with the groom, one that involved food and beer and sensible discretion.

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