Sense and Sensibility, Servants

The Help–Part 1

“They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be!”

–Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Shows like Downton Abbey (be still my heart!) and the revamped Upstairs Downstairs have roused a renewed interest in the ins-and-outs of domestic service in British history. You’ve likely noticed that Austen mentions servants from time to time in her novels, but in Sense and Sensibility she touches particularly on the way service differs between class lines. As the Dashwoods downsize, it becomes necessary to assemble a much smaller domestic team.

downton-servants-horizontal

 

PeriodDrama.com has a wealth of information about servants, if you wish to learn more, but for now I would like to focus on the servants at Barton Cottage.

Being in a smaller middle class household, the Dashwoods require only a skeleton crew for help. As the narrator of Sense states, “[Elinor’s] wisdom too limited the number of their servants to three; two maids and a man.”

The man most likely functions as butler and gardener, receiving visitors and managing the small area of Barton in which the cottage presides. He likely would have also carried the duties of a groom and other stable workers if the Dashwoods had had the facilities to keep their horses and carriage.

The two maids seem to be what are known as “maids-of-all-work.” Such maids were usually paid very little and expected to carry out a massive list of responsibilities that would usually have been executed by a variety of maids and other female servants in a larger house. Their duties would include things such as cooking, cleaning, lighting fires, laundering clothes and linens, and much much more.

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Maids-of-all-work and others employed in less well-to-do households were often the hardest working servants and were not often treated well by their employers. It would seem that the Dashwoods are the exception to this rule. Although we don’t have much insight into the relationships between the Dashwoods and their servants in  Sense and Sensibility, their resourcefulness and ingenuity, especially that of Elinor and her mother, leads me to believe that they may very well have shared the house workload with their servants. Likewise, as the Dashwoods demonstrate kindness and patience with others throughout most of the novel (minus the occasional indiscretion *cough* Marianne *cough cough*), I have a hard time believing they could gravely mistreat any living creature, regardless of circumstances.

 

To Be Continued…

Keep an eye out for more information about servants in the second post during my Pride and Prejudice responses.

 

Sources

Help!—Servants During the Regency by Kelly Giles

Below Stairs: The Servant Hierarchy 19th Century by Genie Bohn

Regency Servants: Maid of All Work by Vic

More Information

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

(The 1920’s maid’s memoir that inspired the creation of Downton Abbey. Not the same century, granted, but still a super cool resource!)

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3 thoughts on “The Help–Part 1

  1. Wonderful insight into domestic life of the Dashwoods. It made me think of Fanny Price’s family and her mom employing a younger girl for help with cleaning and cooking. Thanks for the information.

  2. Great info about the serving class. These individuals (mostly women) found themselves in a very delicate position. They were privy to a family’s most guarded secrets, which should have garnered the respect of their employers; however, any servant with “eyes and ears” in a household, soon found himself or herself seeking another position without a reference to recommend them to another position… what is a servant (particularly a woman) supposed to do when she is fired without any hope of another position? This is one of the sources for the growing number of prostitutes throughout the Victorian era.

  3. This is really great information and a helpful post when thinking about all of the “servants” and “help” we read about in not only this novel, but all of Jane Austen’s novels. Like Britnee, I also thought of Fanny. Great post!

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