Jane Austen lived at a time where servants were numerous and pervasive. Most of her characters employ people to run their homes and tend to their needs, and footmen, housekeepers, maids, and manservants are a constant background presence in Austen’s novels.
In some cases, Jane Austen mentions servants in passing, to add depth to her descriptions. However, in many instances, she uses servants to deliver information, advance or alter the course of the story or to highlight the positive or negative traits of other characters.
At all events, Jane Austen also had very definite ideas as to the role of servants, how they should behave and the kind of relationship that one ought to have with them. Here are some of the common themes we find in her novels:
1) Having servants is a mark of gentility
Austen’s novels cover a broad spectrum of financial circumstances, but even the most impoverished families in them can just about manage to have servants. In Emma, the Bates ladies have a single servant, Patty. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s parents employ two girls: Rebecca, “the upper servant,” and Sally, “an attendant girl” of “inferior appearance.”
Not having at least a maid to help around the house is a shameful evidence of near-destitution. Only Mrs Smith of Persuasion, as a “poor, infirm, helpless widow” with no friends and very little money, is “unable to afford herself the comfort of a servant,” although it is understood that she used to have several before her husband died.
2) The number of servants is a reflection of personal wealth
No surprises here: the richer the masters, the higher the number of staff working in a home. Stately homes such as Pemberley or Mansfield Park would have commanded a small army of servants to keep them ticking like clockwork. Contrast that to Longbourn, where there is a housekeeper, butler, cook, maid, and scullery maid to serve a household of seven.
Austen often uses the reduction in the number of servants to indicate a change for the worse in the circumstances of her heroines. In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood sisters and their mother have to make do with “two maids and a man” when they move to Devonshire. In Persuasion, a strong argument in favour of the Elliots’ move to Bath is that they will require fewer servants. And we have already seen what happens to Mrs Smith, who has lost her fortune to the extent that she can’t even have a maid.
3) Servants are expected to be invisible
In the Regency, servants were expected not to be seen, nor heard. It sounds strange to our XXI century sensitivities, but even the kindest and most observant Austen characters fail to notice them. In Persuasion, this is Anne Elliot’s reaction when Mrs Smith talks to her about Nurse Rooke:
“Did you observe the woman who opened the door to you, when you called yesterday?”
“No. Was it not Mrs. Speed, as usual, or the maid? I observed no-one in particular.”
“It was my friend, Mrs. Rooke – Nurse Rooke, who, by the by, had a great curiosity to see you, and was delighted to be in the way to let you in.”
Persuasion, Chapter 21
Anne is not nasty or self-absorbed, quite the opposite, but she is just a woman of her time. A servant is “no-one in particular,” someone who is expected to open doors and deliver letters without further thought given to them.
4) Servants expose their masters to gossip
Servants were a notorious source of information on their masters. Anything the family did or discussed was at risk of being talked about. In the case of Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Reynolds, the Pemberley housekeeper, “had evidently great pleasure in talking of her master and his sister.” She only has praise to give on Mr Darcy, but it’s likely that, had her opinions been negative, she would have shared them as well.
The only way for masters and mistresses to avoid the scrutiny of their servants was to be particularly careful about their communications. However, such things were difficult at times of high drama. In Pride and Prejudice, upon returning to Longbourn from Hunsford, Elizabeth despairs when she hears that the news of Lydia’s escape with Wickham has not been handled with discretion:
“Oh! Jane,” cried Elizabeth, “was there a servant belonging to it (the house) who did not know the whole story before the end of the day?”
Pride and Prejudice, chapter 47
Elizabeth’s concern is justified, because she knows that, once the servants have the details of the story, the town gossips won’t be long to follow suit.
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