“Pas devant les domestiques (not in front of the servants),” said Lord Louche, so that Lady Louche wouldn’t confront him with his numerous indiscretions at the dinner table. I bet the staff could translate that particular phrase, and knew exactly what their lord had done, too.
Books are filled with loyal retainers. Scarlett has Mammy. Bertie has Jeeves. Bruce Wayne has Alfred. We won’t talk about devious Mrs. Danvers because she’s an aberration, although she was loyal to Rebecca. In historicals the footman is always underfoot accompanying the ladies while they shop and the maid is always lacing maniacally. The butlers are all-knowing, cooks always kind and bosomy, unless they are temperamental French chefs written for comic relief.
Alas, I, like most modern women, get my knowledge of such domestic arrangements from Upstairs, Downstairs, The Remains of the Day, Gosford Park and other period pieces, all rather bittersweet if not downright sour. On occasion, I have had cleaning women, but they terrified me so totally I cleaned up before they came.
It’s impossible to write a historical romance without a nod to the servant class. While Lord and Lady Louche had certain responsibilities in running their household and estate, their hands rarely got dirty. From the 1837 diary of a footman, William Taylor, comes this eloquent passage:
The life of a gentleman’s servant is something that of a bird shut up in a cage. The bird is well housed and well fed but is deprived of liberty, and liberty is the dearest and sweetest object of all Englishmen. Therefore I would rather be like a sparrow or a lark, have less housing and feeding and rather more liberty. A servant is shut up like a bird in a cage, deprived of the benefit of the air to the very great injury of the constitution.
And it took a great many shut-up birds to keep a household running smoothly. Consequently, Lord and Lady Louche were rarely alone. Perhaps their cage was gilded and had more amenities, but they were prisoners of society nevertheless. No wonder Lord Louche left to frolic with an opera dancer and Lady Louche dipped into the laudanum with far too much frequency. But I’ll save infidelity and drug addiction for another post.
So, how about it? Would you like to travel back in time so you could fill your empty days embroidering, playing the pianoforte, reading gothick novels, gossiping and waiting around for Lord Right? And you’d have to change your outfit up to six times a day, too. If so, who would you be, in fact or fiction?
Or do you think you’d wind up as the housemaid, cleaning the grate and lighting the fire for your mistress each morning, with never a moment of your own? I feel a little like Cinderella myself.