Jane Austen's World

The Unseen and Unnoticed Servants in the Background of Jane Austen’s Novels & Life

Inquiring Readers: Servants and the working class are ever present as background characters in Jane Austen’s novels. Readers in her time were well aware of their important duties in all levels of Regency households. They were essential in the running of daily life and/or an estate, and therefore were given no distinction in Austen’s novels unless their roles moved the plot forward.

Introduction:

Without much explanation, Austen’s contemporaries could easily gauge the number of servants that the Bertrams or the Woodhouses employed (at least 7-9 inside their grand houses and more in the fields and gardens) against the socially downward turn the Elliot family and Dashwood women experienced by the number of their reduced help, which in the latter instance was three. The Dashwood women were able to maintain some kind of social status within their unenviable income of £500 a year and with the help of a friendly (and very rich) Mrs. Jennings.

Mrs and Miss Bates employed a maid of all work to help them with their daily chores, although they were dependent on the kindness of their neighbors to help make ends meet. Fanny Price’s parents in Portsmouth engaged two housemaids, impoverished as they were, their poverty due no doubt to Mr. Price’s drinking and meager income, which needed to stretch to clothe and feed a family of 12. Only Mrs Smith, Anne Elliot’s old school friend, an impoverished widow, was too poor to “afford herself the comfort of a servant.” (Persuasion, Chapter 16.) She lived in public accommodations in Bath, whose landlady employed only one servant for her lodgers.

Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants, mid 1770’s. Creative Commons image from Wikimedia Commons , via the Tate Gallery.

Austen’s descriptions of her characters reveal much about the way they treated their help. Imagine having to work under Mrs. Norris’s direction or Mrs. Elton’s! Those two exacting women, neither of whom possessed an ounce of compassion, set the most stringent standards, yet still found time to complain about their staff’s performances.

Compare their attitude to Colonel Brandon’s, who treated underlings with respect and caring, or Mr. Darcy, whose housekeeper’s admiration for her master helped change Elizabeth’s opinion of the man she rejected for being too proud, distant, and arrogant. 

Austen’s oblique descriptions of other characters’ interactions with their servants – Mr. Woodhouse (Emma’s father), for example – causes the reader to contemplate poor James’s situation as his coachman. James was asked to ferry guests like Mrs and Miss Bates back and forth, regardless of time or weather, which was considered a terrible imposition by Austen’s contemporaries. Mr. Woodhouse’s cook, who probably failed to satisfy her employer’s exacting standards for boiling an egg or making gruel, must have suffered silently through his passive aggressive sighs of disappointment for not achieving perfection. 

Then there is Sir Walter Elliot, whose ego was twelve sizes larger than his income, and whose ability to employ the help he was accustomed to was reduced to such a degree that his daughter Elizabeth chose not to invite the Musgroves to dinner, but only to an evening get-together where the lack of servants would not be so obvious. Sir Walter’s major sin in the eyes of Austen’s contemporaries was to squander his fortune to such an extent that he had to rent out his estate and downsize to a mere townhouse in Bath.

Register Office for the Hiring of Servants, Thomas Rowlandson, Watercolour, 1800-1805, Creative Commons image from Wikimedia Commons, Yale Center for British Art.

Servants and help in the Austen family’s household:

The Austens lived a rural life in Steventon Rectory, a life that fed Jane’s budding creativity. Servants in small villages did not necessarily live with their employers. A few might have lived with the Austens, but others worked during the day and returned to their families at night, or worked only the hours they were needed. (Worsley, p. 95.) Laundresses, for example, were employed only on certain days, for their work was strenuous, with intensive labor required for this task. 

“The Austen household was large, with eight children – six boys and two girls – as well as additional pupils, for Rev. George Austen supplemented his clerical income by taking in boy pupils as boarders. There was also a small farm, to supply the family with meat and vegetables, and there were maids and manservants to help with the work. – Jane Austen: A Life

As the above quote suggests, an active working family managed Steventon Rectory. The house sat on Glebe land, or land that yielded revenue to a parish church. An 1821 plan of the Glebe land shows Steventon house, its outbuildings, a yard, and fields. (Robinson Walker, detail from the Jane Austen Memorial Trust.) The family were hardworking. Rev. Austen visited his parishes, collected tithes, raised sheep and pigs, supervised the farm, oversaw the workmen, and taught a boarding school of young boys, among many duties. Mrs Austen tended to the kitchen, the kitchen gardens, chickens, and her alderney cow (which produced a copious amount of milk for its small size, which resulted in a rich butter). She guided her family, the household (including the boarders), and house servants. According to Maggie Lane in Jane Austen and Food, (p. 7):

“…though the family always kept a cook, they did not aspire to a housekeeper to plan meals, organise stores and superintend the daily work of the kitchen. This was done first by Jane’s mother, later by Jane’s sister Cassandra, with Jane herself as subordinate…”

Linda Robinson Walker (Why Was Jane Austen Sent Away to School at Seven?) created an impressive table that shows the number of family members, students, and servants living, studying, and working in the rectory between 1775 and 1795. The chart totals the number of people living in the house, which ranged from 9-20 during that time. Within that total number she included 4-8 servants.

In a letter to Cassandra, Jane wrote fondly of Nanny Littlewart dressing her hair. Nanny is Anne Littleworth, who fostered Jane and Cassandra when they were quite young. Jane mentions as many as nine servants in her letters in 1798. The laundry, for example, “was to be handed over from Mrs Bushell to Mrs Steevens; there was a new maid: ‘we have felt the inconvenience of being without a maid so long, that we are determined to like her.’” (Worsley, p.95.)

In 1801, after Rev. Austen retired and the Austen parents and their two daughters moved to Bath, Mrs Austen expressed her desire to retain two maids, although she kept Rev. Austen in the dark regarding those plans. (Le Faye, Letter 29, p.69.)  At this time, the family’s income was drastically diminished, as were the number of servants. Not until the women moved into Chawton Cottage, did their peripatetic life become stable and a semblance of normalcy re-establish itself, including Mrs. Austen’s work in the gardens, with overseeing the chickens and kitchens and servants. 

Jane also visited many great houses: Stoneleigh Abbey, her mother’s ancestral home; Godmersham Park and Chawton House, both owned by her brother Edward, and Manydown Park, where she received, accepted, and then rejected a proposal from Harris Big-Whither, its heir. These visits acquainted her with the management of great houses and the numbers of servants required to service them and their extensive grounds. Her personal observations were reflected especially in her letters. 

Godmersham Park, Kent, 1824, John Preston Neal, digitized by the British Library.  Creative Commons. Wikimedia CommonsWikipedia.

Gossip and the lack of privacy between servant and employer: 

And now to the servant “problem,” meaning the lack of privacy they represented to those who were served, and the gossip among the servants that irked their employers. In Japanese cultures, where dividing walls consisted of screens largely made of wood frames and rice paper, people learned not to actively listen to their neighbors and intrude on their privacy. 

Servants in Austen’s era, who dressed, bathed, fed, and catered to their employers needs and whims could not help but notice their moods, hear their private conversations, or know about their most intimate habits.

In turn, as a form of self protection, employers simply chose not to notice their staff. Their schedules also did not coincide, for the staff were the first to awaken and the last to retire to bed. They entered rooms to stoke fires when their employers were still asleep, or cleaned and dusted them when those rooms were empty. If they did encounter each other, few exchanges, if any, occurred. 

There were some personal interactions, of course. A master spoke to his valet, steward and/or butler; the mistress to her personal maid, and to give instructions to the cook and housekeeper. These individuals acted as buffers between the employers and the majority of the staff. 

“A good servant was scarcely noticed by his or her employer. To serve is to wear a cloak of invisibility, as it is in Persuasion:

‘Did you observe the woman who opened the door to you, when you called yesterday?’ [Mrs Smith]

‘No. Was it not Mrs Speed, as usual, or the maid? I observed no one in particular.’ [Anne Elliot]” – (Worsley, 2017, pp 95-96) “

This short discussion in Persuasion demonstrated the matter of factness with which Austen (and Anne) regarded this exchange.

Servants were human, however. They gossiped about their betters below stairs or in the kitchens. Often, they were the source of gossip for their employers. Mrs Smith, who, as a cripple, lived a solitary life, learned all she wanted to know through Nurse Rook, who kindly helped her and told her about all the goings on. 

“Call it gossip if you will; but when Nurse Rooke has half an hour’s leisure to bestow on me, she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable, something that makes one know one’s species better. One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly. To me, who live so much alone, her conversation I assure you is a treat.” – Mrs. Smith, Persuasion, Ch 17.

Some individuals, like Lydia Bennet, lost all decorum when she ran to show off her engagement ring to the servants. This was another method by which Austen alerted her readers to Lydia’s recklessness.

Conclusion:

While Austen’s details of her characters and daily life were spare in her novels, her letters revealed personal observations that filled in the gaps for today’s readers. Suffice it to say that Jane’s contemporary readers easily understood her characters when she described their attitudes and treatments towards staff. Two hundred years later we have lost much of that knowledge and require annotation to fully understand the customs of that bygone era, but a lady in Austen’s time would have known how to maintain her dignity despite all the familiarity..

The most fitting ending to this short essay is a quote by Lucy Worsley about Mrs Smith’s network of information (p 96): 

“ Mrs Smith [revealed] to Anne the hidden spy network of servants, nurses and maids that brings her all the Bath gossip. Like Mrs Smith, Jane would notice more than most people did about the invisible people who kept households running.” 

_________

Sources:

Giles, K. Help! – Servants During the Regency, Randolph College, downloaded 6/2/21.

Jane Austen: A Life, Jane Austen’s House, downloaded 6/2/21

Lane, M. (2018) Jane Austen and Food, Lume Books (Kindle)

Le Faye, D. Jane Austen’s Letters (4th ed.) Oxford University Press

Mulan, J. (2013). What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved. Chapter 8: “Do We Ever See the Lower Classes?” (1st ed. U.S.). Bloomsbury Press.

Robinson Walker, L. (2005). Why Was Jane Austen Sent away to School at Seven? An Empirical Look at a Vexing Question. Persuasions On-Line, 26 (No. 1 (Winter)). http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol26no1/walker.htm

Worsley, L. (2017). Jane Austen at Home (1st ed. U.S.). St. Martin’s Press

Posts about servants on this blog:

The Green Baize Door: Dividing Line Between Servant and Master, January 2012.

Food – To Die For: Food Preparation in the Georgian Era, August, 2012.

Laundry, Georgian Style, August, 2011

Regency Servants: Maid of All Work, June, 2009.

Hiring Servants in the Regency Era and Later, May, 2009.

Footmen: Male Servants in The Regency Era, January, 2008.

Regency Life: Finding a Job as a Servant, June, 2008

Every Day Chores of Laundry and Scullery Maids, and Washer Women, July 2007.

The Scullery Maid, November 2006.