Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Servant Problem

In one of those lovely bits of synchronicity that I'm so often running into, I'm listening to the chapter on servants in Bill Bryson's At Home at the same time that we were finishing up the really wonderful TV show Downton Abbey. First, it was a great show, and I highly recommend it.  Secondly, the servant problem is a fascinating one.

I actually had one of those moments where you get your stories confused.  Bryson was talking about how much work servants had to do, their hours, their usual length of tenure in a job.  Downton had a scene about hiring a new maid, going into and out of service.  I can't remember where they were talking what happens when servants fall in love, or whether a footman can marry.

The idea of servants is fascinating, though.  It fits in with the strange way of imagining the world of the past, when it would be almost impossible to keep yourself alive and comfortable on your own, because of the amount of work involved in cooking, cleaning, repairing.  Food was from scratch, pots were cast iron, water had to be hauled.  I can barely keep up with getting the clothes washed in the washing machine; if I had to scrub them by hand, it would be another life entirely around here. 

So you have these people who all live together, and work together to keep the house running, ostensibly for the benefit of the four or five people in the family.  But of course, there's more to it than that.  Taking care of the family of five requires, say, five servants, but then of course you're actually taking care of ten people, so you need a few more.  And they have their own ranks, and hierarchies, and structures.  And imagine if you had to live with your coworkers, maybe even share a room, and your boss had a bell that rang in your bedroom for when he needed you.

This goes together with the idea of emotional anachronism, I think.  The entire Bryson book ties into that theme, really, because it's about how the most basic things we take for granted now--the fact that we live in houses, say, and relieve ourselves in bathrooms, that only certain animals live indoors with us, and that eating and sleeping happen in separate places--are not given as a part of nature.  Fifteen hundred years ago, there was no such thing as indoor privacy.  It makes you think to hold this up against the feelings of Trella from Inside Out and wonder whether you'd really have any notion at all of privacy if you grew up living in a bunkroom.

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