March 2014 Meeting: Servants in Jane Austen’s novels, with a look at Jo Baker’s Longbourn

Having enjoyed last year’s theme of looking at how Jane Austen explored specific emotions – such as anger, desire, envy and jealousy – in her novels, we decided to turn to roles, starting this month with servants. The theme was partly inspired by the publication last year of Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn: Pride and Prejudice, the Servants’ Story, so we included a discussion of this book in our meeting.

Male servants

We began by sharing some interesting snippets of information. One member was intrigued by the reference to “footboy” in Persuasion, as she, like others of us, hadn’t heard the term before. (The term more common to us is “page”). This led to a discussion of taxation on male servants because of the war. Judith Terry states that the number of male servants in a household was “a mark of rank and wealth”. Taxation on male servants was introduced in 1777, at one guinea per head. By 1808, this had been increased to £7 per head in households that had 11 or more male servants. (Note that a dairymaid at that time would earn 8 guineas per annum so this tax was significant). Only the wealthy would have a male cook – and we noted that Bingley’s cook in Baker’s Longbourn is male! We also noted that the gender of Serle, Mr Woodhouse’s cook in Emma, is not identified.

Naming of servants

We discussed the way people in power presume to give names to those less powerful. Housemaid Polly, who was christened Mary, was given the name Polly because Miss Mary (Bennet) already had that name. Bingley’s footman, the mulatto Ptolemy, had the last name of Bingley because:

If you’re off his estate, that’s your name, that’s how it works. (Longbourn)

We also talked a little about servants being called either by their first or last name in Austen’s novels, but rarely with their title – Mr, Mrs, Miss.

Servants as watchers and spies

One member commented on how closely servants watched their masters, while their masters were often oblivious of them (beyond the tasks they performed). Watching was in the servants’ interest of course because their future was often tied to the fortunes of their masters. Baker demonstrates this in Longbourn through Mrs Hill’s concern regarding who would take over Longbourn when Mr Bennet died. Unlike Mrs Bennet she was reasonably happy with Mr Collins’ choice of Charlotte Lucas:

The future was no longer such a terrifying place. Charlotte Lucas was a steady young woman, who knew the value of a good servant, and who had far too much sense to replace staff simply for the sake of appearance or fashion. (Longbourn)

But servants could also be gossips, as Elizabeth was only too aware at the time of Lydia’s “elopement”. She and the Gardiners were pleased when Mrs Bennet withdrew to her room

for they knew that she had not prudence enough to hold her tongue before the servants, while they waited at table. (P&P)

Servants and employers

A member quoted Judith Terry’s comment that, in her novels, Austen suggests that “too much intimacy with servants is a bad thing”. In Longbourn, we noticed, it was bad-boy Wickham who behaved most familiarly with the servants, and while doing so, cast his eyes particularly in Polly’s direction!

One of the servants most visible in Jane Austen’s novels is the housekeeper of Pemberley, Mrs Reynolds. We all remembered Elizabeth Bennet’s reaction to Mrs Reynolds’ praise of Darcy:

What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant. (P&P)

The book in which servants play the greatest role is Mansfield Park, largely because of Mrs Norris. The servants provide plenty of opportunities for her to demonstrate many of her unappealing characteristics, such as her bullying. A member noted that Mansfield Park is the only Austen novel in which a servant levels a criticism at his superiors – when Baddeley, with a half-smile (this half-smile being the criticism), makes it very clear to Mrs Norris that it is indeed Miss Price whom Sir Thomas wants, not her!

We, like Terry and Mullan, discussed the fact that Austen often uses servants in the novel to provide commentary on her characters. Her best characters in other words, such as Colonel Brandon and Mr Knightley, treat servants well, while her worst, such as Mrs Norris and Lady Catherine de Burgh, do quite the opposite.

Specific critique of Longbourn

Several members felt that Jo Baker generally made the Bennet and Lucas families poorer than they were: Longbourn is presented as smaller and “meaner” than the Bennets’ house would have been; the descriptions of horses and carriages (chaises and calashes) did not accord with the “reality” of the novels; the housekeeper of Hunsford parsonage is unlikely to have used a term like “dolly-mop” (slang for prostitute or strumpet) for Sarah.

One member shared her research into Eau de vie and the Cordial Balm of Gilead. She suggested that the cost of the Balm of Gilead – a small bottle would cost the same as one week’s wage for a labourer – emphasises Mrs Bennet’s frivolousness.

Some members found the novel a rollicking read, while others enjoyed the historical information but felt the story was “wrong” or too melodramatic. All agreed that Baker was sensible in not attempting to emulate Austen’s style.

References

Baker, Jo (2103) Longbourn: Pride and Prejudice, the Servants’ Story. London: Doubleday
Mullan, John (2012) What matters in Jane Austen. London: Bloomsbury
Terry, Judith (1988) “Seen but not heard: Servants in Jane Austen’s England”, in Persuasions #10, 1988, pp. 104-116

Other business and next meeting

The meeting concluded with a quiz focusing on servants in Austen (which we managed better than usual due to many of the answers having been revealed during the meeting!) and our quotes.

Various pieces of information were shared, including:

  • the invitation to the launch of Roslyn Russell’s book;
  • an article on the television miniseries, Death comes to Pemberley;
  • a Sotheby’s ad for an auction of 18th century postilion boots; and
  • information regarding Dale Spender’s book about women novelists before Austen, Mothers of the novel.

There will be no formal meeting in April, enabling members instead to attend some or all of the Jane Austen Festival of Australia (JAFA). Our May meeting, 17 May, will be devoted to a discussion of our JAFA experiences.

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