Posts Tagged ‘Lady's Maids’


Inquiring readers: This is the first of a post on the subject of the upward mobility for two upper servant positions. Part One examines the duties of the lady’s maid, and her motivation for continuing in a position that was hard and demanding, and that required her to be loyal and subservient to her mistresses’ whims and wishes from early morning to late at night, and at times past her usual long hours.

Through her visits to grand houses, such as Godmersham Park, Jane Austen became familiar with the lives of ladies maids and housekeepers. These two positions belonged to the class of upper female servants, but even with their “status” and the deference they received from the lower servants their service required long work hours and extensive knowledge of and years of training in their respective duties and situations. Their hours were determined by the requirements of the lady of the house and her social schedule  (although, in the instance of the housekeeper, the master of the house might also have a great say, especially if he was unmarried, like Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley.)


Fronticepiece, The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, public domain. Image 1

The Lady’s Maid

According to The Woman’s Domain, the position of the lady’s maid was one of the best in the female hierarchy of servants. Most of her day was spent above stairs working in her lady’s dressing room. She frequently accompanied her lady on travels and visits, a privilege not accorded to many. In public, she was expected to dress fashionably in clothes that were tasteful but not as fine as her mistress’s. Better yet, she was chosen by her mistress and employed directly by her.

The Complete Servant (1825) mentions that the “business of the lady’s maid is extremely simple, and but little varied.” The book’s authors describe the lady’s maid’s duties:

  • She is generally to be near the person of her lady ; 
  • and to be properly qualified for her situation, her education should be superior to that of the ordinary class of females, particularly in needle work, and the useful and ornamental branches of female acquirements.
  • To be peculiarly neat and clean in her person and dress is better than to be tawdry or attractive, as intrinsic merit is a much greater recommendation than extrinsic appearance. 
  • In her temper she should be cheerful and submissive, studying her lady’s disposition.
  • It will be her business to dress, re-dress , and undress her lady; and, in this, she should learn to be perfectly au fait and expeditious, ever studying, so far as it depends on herself, to manifest good taste, by suiting the ornaments and decoration of her dress to the complexion, habits, age , and general appearance of her person . (p237)

The image below lists the skills that a lady’s maid is expected to possess. 


Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, Public Domain. Image 2

A lady’s maid had no set work hours. Her attention was devoted to her mistress’s comforts and whims. This left her with little time to devote to her family or to visit them. Her schedule was erratic and changed  at the last minute to accommodate unexpected house guests and family trips or travels. She was also expected to attend to her mistress after a  late night return from a ball or visit. During the day she accompanied her mistress while shopping or walking. In this capacity, and while traveling by her mistress’s side, she was expected to behave and dress appropriately, but never to wear clothes more fashionable  than her employer. 

The following image lists the behavior a mistress expects from her lady’s maid, which are described in detail in The Duties of a Lady’s Maid.

Contents 1

Duties of Behavior of a Lady’s Maid, 1825. Image 3.

In between caring for her mistress, she was expected to mend her clothes, remove spots, iron, and make poultices, lotions, and cosmetics. She was also a hairdresser, dresser, cosmetician, cleaner, supervisor of lesser servants, seamstress, and companion all rolled into one. In other words, she had no free time except for the few days and hours a month allotted to her. 

The Day of a Lady’s Maid

The Complete Servant lists the lady’s maid’s exhaustive duties:


  • Her first business, in the morning , will be to see that the housemaid has made the fire , and properly prepared her lady’s dressing room: -she then calls her mistress, informs her of the hour, and having laid out all her clothes, and carried her hot water, to wash, she retires to her breakfast with the housekeeper and other principal servants.
  • When her lady’s bell rings, she attends her in her dressing  room – combs her hair for the morning, and waits on her till dressed; after which, she folds and puts away her night clothes , cleans her combs and brushes  and adjusts her toilet table.


  • About one o’clock the family generally take their lunch, and the servants their dinner.– After this, she is again summoned to attend her lady’s toilet whilst dressing to go abroad.
  • It is her business to see that the house maid, or chambermaid, empties the slops, keeps up the fires , both in this and the bedroom, ( if wanted ) and keeps the rooms in perfect order .


  • Previous to her mistress ‘ retiring for the night , she will have looked out her night clothes, and aired them well; and she will not only now, but at all times when she goes to dress, carry up hot water, for washing, etc. and when she is gone to bed, she will carefully examine all her clothes, and do all that is necessary to be done to them , before she folds them away. If her lady be elderly, infirm, or unwell, she will sometimes be required to bring her work, and sit with her, to adminis ter her medicines , and sometimes to read to her. 

Progress of the Toilet Dress Completed Gillray 1810-British Museum

Progress of the Toilet, Plate 3, Dress Completed, James Gillray. Crude copy, 1810. British Museum. Image 4.

During a Lady’s Maid’s “Free Time”

  • In the absence of the housekeeper, she will be required to make tea and coffee for the drawing room company. 
  • At her leisure, practise reading aloud, from the best author; as it is important to acquire a proper style and manner of reading, in all the varieties of poetry or prose, ode or epistle, comedy, or sermon; avoiding, alike, the dull monotony of the school girl, and the formal affectation of the pedant, but following nature as her guide, in all that appertains to emphasis, modulation, and delivery.
  • If acquainted with the superior branches of needle work, she might afford her lady much gratification, in presenting her, occasionally, with such trifles as will be acceptable, and suitable ornaments for her person This will evince her disposition to be grateful and to oblige; and this, combined with a feminine sweetness of temper, and suavity of manners, cannot fail to be her sure recommendation to the esteem of her superiors and others, through all the various circumstances of life. 
  • She lays out and prepares the several articles that may be required for her dinner, or evening dress, and afterwards employs her self at needle work in her own room, or in her other avocations, till her mistress returns to dress for dinner, perhaps about five, when she attends her for that purpose; and having done this, it may happen that no further attendance on her mistress’s person will be required till she retires to bed: meanwhile she employs herself at needle work, as in the morning * more else in the various occupations of getting up the fine linen, gauzes, muslins, cambrics, laces, & washing silk stockings, taking the spots or stains out of silks, [text?] … for doing which the best receipts are annexed . 
  • It is her business to see that the house maid, or chambermaid, empties the slops, keeps up the fires, both in this and the bedroom, ( if wanted ) and keeps the rooms in perfect order .
  • Previous to her mistress’s  retiring for the night, she will have looked out her night clothes, and aired them well; and she will not only do (?), but at all times when she goes to dress, carry up hot water, for washing, & c. and when she is gone to bed, she will carefully examine all her clothes, and do all that is necessary to be done to them, before she folds them away. 
  • If her lady be elderly, infirm, or unwell, she will sometimes be required to bring her work, and sit with her, to administer her medicines, and sometimes to read to her. To qualify herself for this latter purpose, and to acquit herself with propriety

After years of service, she hoped that her loyal and attentive companionship would be rewarded by her mistress or the family in her old age. Sadly, this was not always the case if a widowed husband remarried or a son with his own wife inherited the estate. One would imagine that in Sense and Sensibility Mrs. John Dashwood would bring her own lady’s maid in place of the widow Dashwood’s loyal maid servant. 

A Female Servant’s Attraction to the Job of Lady’s Maid

In the early 19th century servant turnover was already surprisingly high. (This trend became more worrisome as the century wore on.) Those who remained with a household did so for job security, They might not have had other prospects for employment, or they might have moved to better employment. Some stayed for the chance of advancement; or in the hope for a pension after years of loyal service; or, as with a lady’s maid, for a chance to travel beyond her local parish or county. In those days a majority of the working poor or lower working classes lived and worked within walking distances of their villages or homes and rarely ventured beyond that during their lifetime, although there were exceptions.

The working lives of lower servants were not easy. They slept in cramped attic rooms that they shared and that were cold in winter and hot in summer. Many toiled in damp basements throughout the day, and carried heavy buckets of water to heat for food, laundering clothes, or bathing.

No wonder upper servants – land stewarts, butlers, and valets on the male side, and cooks, lady’s maids, and housekeepers on the woman’s side – were positions preferred by those who sought employment. These occupations came with the perks of private rooms and status in the servant hierarchy. Servants who worked under them deferred to their wishes, since few from the lower order spoke to the master or mistress of the house.

Upper servants took years to acquire the necessary skills for their positions, which took years of patience and planning. This personal investment was worth the wait … IF an upward bound position opened.  A century later, Barrow and Molesley in Downton Abbey experienced the travails of thinking they had achieved their goals, only to lose their positions and settle for situations lower down again. 

The Education of Sarah Neal, Whose Ambition Was to be a Lady’s Maid

The road Sarah Neall took to becoming a lady’s maid is described in The Woman’s Domain by Lumis and March. Sarah embarked on her ambitious journey as early as the age of eight. Her father, an innkeeper, sent her to a small private day school for girls in Chichester – which was named Miss Riley’s – to start her on her journey. There she  learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. Her instruction included scripture, a general knowledge of geography, the counties of England, names and dates of kings and queens, and a smattering of classical culture. Mr. Neal, a working class gent, could not afford French instruction, which was a desirable skill, but he had the means to give her a start that no laborer or unskilled worker could have afforded for their daughters. In her early years Sarah learned the foundational skills that sent her in the direction of achieving her ambitions. Miss Riley’s school and schools like hers were  a common pathway for working class girls to learn the rudiments required for an upper servant position

After attending Miss Riley’s, Sarah apprenticed to a dressmaker for four years where she honed her skills in dressmaking. She also took lessons in hairdressing and millinery. Eventually, Sarah landed a job as one of two young lady’s maids at Uppark, a 17th-century house in South Harting in West Sussex. She was the younger of the two maids, where she hoped for a possible advancement to housekeeper. In her position as lady’s maid, she kept a diary about the places she visited, which documented events but not her thoughts nor descriptions about her employers. Sarah left her position when her mother’s poor health required her to attend to her needs. (More about Sarah in Part 2 of this three part series.)

Uppark_Kip-early 18th C-Wiki

Uppark, early 18th c. This is a bird’s eye view of Uppark and its lands by Jan Kip. Wikipedia, creative commons image. Image 6.

Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice mentions the Bennet servants at Longbourn: They were a butler, Mrs Hill, and two house maids. Very little is known about each, but Mrs. Bennet required Mrs. Hill’s services several times when she was needed, notably when Mr. Collins announced his visit. The two house maids in Pride and Prejudice dressed and cared for six women, as well as tended to the household duties along with Mrs. Hill. One only can imagine their chores. Lydia and Kitty’s requirements must have been quite a task compared to Mary’s, Elizabeth’s, and Jane’s demands, which I surmise were more restrained. Austen never described those interactions in detail, and so we can only guess.

In Longbourn, Jo Baker the author, weaves a story about Mr. Hill, the butler; Mrs Hill, the housekeeper and his wife; Sarah (16) and Polly (11,) the two house maids; and James Smith, a mysterious man of all work. Baker discussed the two young maids and their duties at length, and I wondered if she fashioned young Sarah after Sarah Neal, so aptly described in the Woman’s Domain and by her son, H.G. Wells in his autobiography (which is why we know so much about her). 

The Perks of Being a Lady’s Maid

As mentioned before, the lady’s maid spent the majority of her day above stairs in comfortable and often luxurious surroundings, ready to change her mistress’s dress or to rearrange her hair for an evening out at a moment’s notice. She received a major perk that other upper servants did not – her mistress’s old clothes that were out of fashion. It was important that she look presentable when accompanying her lady on walks, visits, or out of town trips. She could not under any circumstance outshine her employer. For extra money she had the freedom to sell her second-hand gifts or refurbish them. The travel, the visits to grand houses, her companionship with her lady when she read to her or listened to her confidences – all these were hers in exchange for loyalty, sacrifice from seeing her family freely, and for being discreet.


Satirical print of a Lady’s Maid, British Museum, entitled Curiosity, Charles William, 1817.

Description (British Museum): A pretty lady’s maid stoops in profile to the right to gaze with prurient eagerness through a key-hole. She holds a salver with her left hand, letting two jelly-glasses slide off it, while her other hand is beneath her dress. A lady’s bonnet and gloves and a cocked hat and sword, carelessly laid down, show the object of her curiosity. She wears a graceful white gown and a lace cap over her curled hair. April 1817. Etching with hand-colouring.

For the reader: Think about this image re: the Lady’s Maid as discussed in this post: Knowing what is expected of the lady’s maid and her conduct, what about this image disturbs you? What in the details do you see related to her work and attire? What is the satire? Feel free to place your thought in your comment.

The Young Lady’s Maid 

Lastly, this post addresses the young lady’s maids who are hired in large families to wait on a group of young ladies or one in particular. (Recall that Sarah began her career when she was 18 or 19.) Recall Mr. Darcy’s young sister, Georgiana. He felt responsible towards her and probably made sure she was “protected” when his schedule and social activities took him away from Pemberley. The duties of her young lady’s maid were to cater to her personal needs and comfort, to be her companion during outings, and to read to her or converse with her during private periods. This young lady’s maid’s duties were similar to her more mature counterparts, and she would be expected to follow similar directions and instructions to serve her young mistress.

Her situation was considered initiatory to a better trajectory in life. A more mature upper servant in the household would provide oversight. In young Miss Darcy’s instance, this would most likely be the housekeeper. Successful young lady’s maids grew up with their mistresses and stayed with them for years, achieving a deep affection and close friendship for one another. These young charges as they matured often knew their ladies better than their own families. 

Next post in this series: Part Two: Lady’s Maid to Housekeeper and Her Responsibilities.


Original Sources:

The Complete Servant; Being a Practical Guide to the Peculiar Duties and Business of All Descriptions of Servants, FROM THB HOUSEKEEPER TO THE SERVANT OP ALL WORK , AND FROM THE LAND STEWARD TO THE BOOT – BOY ; WITH USEFUL RECIPES AND TABLES , BY SAMUEL AND SARAH ADAMS , Fifty years Servants in different Families . LONDON : PUBLISHED BY KNIGHT AND LACEY , PUBLISHERS OF BOOKS CONNECTED WITH THE USEFUL ARTS , at the James Watt , in Paternoster – Row . MDCCCXxv (1825).  Price Seven Shillings and Sixpence. From The Pennsylvania State University Libraries. Free google play book.

The Duties of a Lady’s Maid; With Directions for Conduct and Numerous Receipts for the Toilette, LONDON : PRINTED FOR JAMES BULCOCK , 163 , STRAND . 1825 . Free Google play book, downloaded 1-11-2022. 

Wells, H.G.,  Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866). 1934, Project Gutenberg Canada ebook #539, where this book is in the public domain with restrictions. Link to the book: Downloaded 1-14-2022.


Lummis, T.& March, J. in association with The National Trust, The Woman’s Domain: Women and the English Country House (1993 2nd Ed.) Penguin Books, England.221 pp.

Meade-Featherstonhaugh, M. & Warner, O. Uppark and Its People (1995, 2nd ed) The National Trust, London.

Pool, D. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist – the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England. 1993. Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, NY.

Servants in Regency England: Fall 2016 Adapting Jane Austen, A Xavier University First Year Seminar


Image 1: Fronticepiece, The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, Public Domain.

Image 2: Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, Public Domain.

Image 3: Duties of Behavior of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, Public Domain.

Image 4: The Progress of the Toilet, Dress Completed, Plate 3, 1810. Gillray, British Museum

Image 5: The Dressmaker, Book of Trades, 1804, Rijks Museum, anonymous. Click on the title.

Image 6: Uppark, early 18th c. This is a bird’s eye view of Uppark and its lands by Jan Kip. Wikipedia, creative commons image.

Image 7: Satirical print of a Lady’s Maid, British Museum, entitled Curiosity, Charles William, 1817.

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