I’m reading this really fun book called Not in Front of the Servants by Frank Victor Dawes (1973), which has compiled a great number of testimonies (in all fairness, they are unverified) from people who were once in service as servants. Some of the stuff they talk about is NUTS.
For example, sex with servants. There was an enormous double standard that put all the blame on the woman if her master (or any of his friends or relatives) had sex with her and someone found out. She would usually be dismissed instantly, and without a reference, meaning she would have difficulty finding another job, and would probably have to turn to prostitution.
There would be little stigma or punishment for the man (unless he was married and his wife found out). In fact, for some ‘young bucks’, it was expected. You got your seduction practice on household maids when you were a teenager. All perfectly healthy and normal, etc. Obviously your parents didn’t want to know what you were up to, but if you were caught, it would be entirely the maid’s fault (even though she would be trapped in that awkward position of refusing sex with someone who was essentially her boss–say no, maybe get fired, say yes, maybe get fired).
There was another weird standard as well, beyond one of gender. There was the double standard of class. Many upper class women saw themselves as protectors of virtue: they had the ‘moral’ high ground and should set a good example for their servants, make sure the maids didn’t have ‘followers’ (i.e., boyfriends), and keep all arrangements proper in the house. However, you also had the notion percolating that the working classes were inherently more sinful and easily led astray than good middle- and upper-class people. This then becomes twice a complicated when you consider that the extremely high up (members of the aristocracy, for example) didn’t always follow the same rules of convention, and that there were plenty of scandals and people having sex with those whom they shouldn’t.
So in some houses, especially on aristocratic estates, you had aristocrats sleeping with whomever they pleased, as long as it wasn’t made too public, who also believed that it was their duty to keep their servants chaste and pure, even though those servants were considered morally bankrupt and in need of constant supervision. If the servants gave in to their ‘natural’ lowly urges, which they were sometimes pressured to do by the very masters trying to protect their virtue, they were fired, and turned out in to the streets without references, where it was common knowledge that they would likely have to . . . turn to prostitution.
Remind me again, how is that helping protect their moral purity?
Jonathan Swift had a far more pragmatic approach to all of this hypocrisy (albeit he was writing from at least a hundred years in the past when cultural values were slightly different). In 1745, he advises “the lady’s maid to get as much out of her master as she possibly can – ‘never allow him the smallest liberty, not the squeezing of your hand, unless he puts a guinea into it‘ – and he advises an ascending scale of payments up to a hundred guineas, or a settlement of £20 a year for life, for granting what eighteenth-century bucks called the ‘last favour‘” (42).
In 1888, an anonymous Victorian gentleman wrote the 11-volume My Secret Life, a pornographic memoir about his sexual awakening with servants. I haven’t had the delight of reading it myself, but I have certainly heard about it. Frankly, I don’t know if I have the strength to read it. The gentleman (assuming he really exists and his memoirs are true) called himself “Walter” and discussed how he learned his way around women by starting with the servants in his teen years.
Because, you know, servants aren’t real women. They’re for practice. Like learning to ride a bike with training wheels on. It makes it . . . difficult to . . . fall . . . off? This simile may not be perfect.
Anyway, it started out with Walter getting maids to kiss him in back stairways, sometimes for a full minute at a time! Walter! You sexual deviant!
But, of course, for a strapping young lad, kissing wasn’t going to entertain him for very long. He writes [quoted in this book], “As to servants and women of the humbler class . . . they all took cock on the quiet and were proud of having a gentleman to cover them. Such was the opinion of men in my class of life and of my age. My experience with my mothers’ [sic] servants corroborated it’ (45).
Classy. As. Balls.
“Even after he was married he continue to find his pleasure among the female domestics in his household. After one encounter with Mary, a young servant employed by his wife, he described how she ‘put quite down her clothes, and sitting up on the sofa gave me a kiss, said, “I must go and see about laying the things for dinner,” and off she went . . .’
“On another occasion, when his wife has discovered a servant in some minor sexual irregularity and dismissed her, he comments: ‘That, I quite expected, for it was the Mistress’ custom to coax out the facts from the poor devils in a kind way, and then to kick them out mercilessly. Middle-aged married women are always hard upon the young in matters of copulation.'”
Well, it depends, Walter. Were YOU sleeping with the maid? Because that might have made your wife a bit stony-hearted.
“Yet he showed scant mercy himself when he was called upon to play the part of the stern Victorian pater familias. James, a man-servant in his house, was caught ‘in loving familiarities‘ with a servant girl called Lucy: ‘The poor girl had let this out to the cook or someone else, and the cook split upon her. James was imprudent and denied it all, but I think the case was proved. It would not have done to have passed over open fornication. Had I done so, the habit would have spread through the household; so I reluctantly gave him notice. The poor girl went off very quietly in tears.’
“After his confessions of lechery on his own part, his concern about fornication ‘spreading through the household’ almost takes one’s breath away as a piece of monumental hypocrisy. But he is about to rise to even greater heights. Lucy, the poor girl, was unable to get another situation and was in desperate straits. The master went to see her and seduced her, as one might have expected. He then procured an abortion, got James to marry the girl and packed them both off to a distant part of the country with £50 as a present” (46).
It’s hardly surprising that servants went to great lengths to hide any romantic ‘trouble’. One such account in the book recalls a rather horrifying incident in a respectable house in the 1880s in London. The parlor-maid “served luncheon as usual, without appearing in any way disturbed or unwell, but failed to put in an appearance when the family sat down to dinner. Another maid was sent up to the attic to find her and came back with the startling news: ‘Ooh, Mum, there’s a baby in her room.’
“The girl, living in an eminent doctor’s house, had delivered herself of a baby, without help of any kind, in the few hours between lunch and dinner. No one had noticed her condition” (47).
The granddaughter of the doctor in question, who reported the story to the author, assumes that her grandfather would have let the maid stay on, as he was a very kind soul.
Thank you, doctor, for giving me the one tiny bit of joy in this rather bleak chapter.