Tuesday 16 May 2017

The Jane Austen Project

It's a delight to welcome Kathleen Flynn, author of The Jane Austen Project, for a delve into the lives of Regency servants!


When I got the idea to write about some time travelers who go in search of Jane Austen, one concern was how her world would strike someone not native to it. What was the texture of everyday existence, and how could I depict it? 
One crucial difference is how so many tasks of daily life – heating and lighting our homes, keeping our bodies and our clothes clean, getting food on the table – have become infinitely less laborious in our world. We have electricity and running water; they had servants, at least people wealthy enough to afford them did. And even those pretty far down the economic ladder, like the Bates household in Emma, would have had at least a maid of all work. That would seem strange to many of us today -- having people around all the time who know such intimate details of your personal habits. True, lots of relatively well-off families have a nanny, or someone who comes by to clean the house, but this must have been considerably more intense. They’d be emptying your chamber pot, overhearing your conversations at dinner.  
How would my time travelers handle this? Arrived in 1815, they are posing as wealthy newcomers to London, an orphaned brother and sister in their 30s who have sold their family’s coffee plantation in Jamaica. When I visited house museums of the period, I tried to envision their house, and wondered about their imaginary servants. How many would they need; how would the household tasks be divided? And since they don’t know anyone and cannot get recommendations through word of mouth, how will they find them? What were servants paid, and how often? Did they all generally live in the house with their masters, even in town? 

I spent pleasant hours in the reading room of the New York Public Library with volumes like Housekeeping in the 18th Century and The British Abigail, but felt I was still nibbling around the edges of facts I needed. Then a blog post by a writer of historical fiction sent me on the trail of an out-of-print book not in NYPL’s collection, which I was able to find used through Amazon. 

When The Complete Servant arrived in the mail, I couldn’t believe my luck. A 1989 reprint of a work first published in 1825, it was written by two retired servants who’d started as footboy and maid-of-all-work, rising through the service ranks all the way to the top: house-steward and housekeeper. In its own time it was a guide both to servants and their employers, some of whom would have been new to wealth, unsure how to manage a household as large as the one they found themselves in charge of. For someone in the early 21st century trying to imagine domestic life of 200 years earlier, it was solid gold. 

After a modern introduction by a professor of economic and social history, there’s the original introduction by the co-authors with some heartfelt advice to both employer: “The mistress of a family will always recollect that, in all cases, the welfare and good character of her household depends on her own active superintendence” and employee: “The virtue of silence is highly commendable, and will contribute greatly to your ease and prosperity.”  

Then we get a series of chapters on each kind of servant, starting with the housekeeper and ending with the under gardener, dealing with, among others, the kitchen maid, the lady’s maid, the young lady’s maid, the servant of all work, the butler, the under butler, the valet, the footman and the hall porter – 33 such chapters, outlining the duties of each and the typical salary range. Of course, only the grandest houses would require 33 kinds of servants, so the book also suggests how some jobs may combine, like “Groom and Valet, or Footman.” 

Interspersed with descriptions of the servants’ duties is practical advice relevant to the job in question. The part devoted to the “Chamber Nurse” (which was not a full-time servant, but someone called in at times of illness) has sections on how to get rid of warts, how to “extinguish fires which may have caught the clothes” (a serious danger in a world of open flames and long cotton skirts) and “A method of restoring life to the apparently drowned.” The cook’s chapter has a list of “principal herbs, or vegetables used in English salads” (a sophisticated lineup including sorrel, watercress and chervil) and recipes for various sauces. It has advice about managing the fire: “Judicious cooks will perform their culinary operations with much less coal than those who erroneously believe that the greater the fire, the greater the dispatch.”

At this, and at many other points, I was struck by what a large array of practical skills have been effectively lost to time, though we like to imagine ourselves as much more advanced than the people of 1815.  Who could even start a fire with a flint and steel today, let alone cook an entire meal with the unpredictable heat of an open hearth? Impossible not to be amazed by all these forgotten people, our ancestors in possession of their now-forgotten skills, who kept the drawing rooms warm, the horses fed and shod, the wool carded, the butter churned and the stagecoaches running.

And this is not the end to the glories of The Complete Servant. Tables at the beginning offer guidance as to how many and what kind of servants one might be expected to have, according to a family’s income and size. My time travelers had to be wealthy enough to interest the gregarious London banker Henry Austen as potential customers as well as friends, yet not so rich that he would consider them too grand to introduce to his sister Jane, when she came to visit him in the fall of 1815. In the £1000 to £1500 annual income range, maybe, thus requiring something like:  “Four Females and three Men; viz -- A Cook, Two Housemaids, a Nursey-Maid or Other Female Servant; a Coachman, Footman, and a Man to assist in the Stable and Garden.”

Jane Austen’s novels are notable for being faithful to small details of everyday life and yet not getting bogged down in them. Her contemporary readers would have immediately grasped the significance of, say, Henry Crawford owning a barouche in Mansfield Park vs. Henry Tilney having a curricle in Northanger Abbey. (I would think of it as something like a Land Rover vs. a Mini-Cooper convertible.) They would have understood why Mrs. Norris of Mansfield Park was so pleased with the housekeeper at Sotherton because she did not serve wine at the second table and turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns. (The second table was where the lower-ranking servants ate. To me, the most fascinating implication of this was that Sotherton’s more important servants apparently did expect wine with their meals. White gowns indicate that the housemaids were imitating the fashions of those above them in social rank, a tendency The Complete Servant also sternly warns against.) But even though most modern readers would miss such nuances, their enjoyment of Jane Austen’s wit and psychological insight is not decreased.
Anyone writing a story set in the distant past faces knows the challenge of capturing the flavor of its strangeness without over-describing. In my excitement after discovering The Complete Servant, I put in a great detail of fascinating (to me at least) details about household management that some early readers gently pointed out were excessive, and slowing down the action. I went back and took most of them out. Yet I had a sense I’d not before, of feeling more firmly anchored in the world of 1815, of having a sense of the world beyond the page. I can only hope readers will too.

The Jane Austen Project, due out on May 2, 2017, is available as an e-book, a paperback, and an audiobook. Here are some buy links:
On Twitter at @AustenProject, on the web at kathleenaflynn.com and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kathleenaflynnauthor. Email newsletter signup at https://tinyletter.com/kathleenaflynn.

About the author
Kathleen A. Flynn grew up in tiny Falls Village, Conn., the daughter of an electrician and a kindergarten teacher. Currently a copy editor at The New York Times and resident of Brooklyn, Flynn has taught English in Hong Kong, washed dishes on Nantucket, and is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. The Jane Austen Project is her first novel.

1 comment:

Demetrius said...

Having gone through very many census returns, it is noticeable that very many households have only a limited number of "living in", both aristocratic and down in the middle classes. In the vicinity there are many listed as servants who are clearly living out in say mews or lodging houses. This has led me to wonder if those who go between town and country houses take only the living in servants with them and then hire others from place to place. In rural areas the local villages etc., in town choosing between the many looking for work at any time. I suspect that the employment etc. of servants could be more complex than we think. In fiction, inevitably, it is usual for the servants to be taken for granted, as I suspect as in life.