The gentry literally could not function without servants. They were a vast and silent army. At least one in ten and probably more people worked as servants in Austen’s time.
If you went on vacation, you took your servants with you. How did John and Isabella Knightley and their five children and their servants get to Hartfield with only one carriage? They didn’t. The servants and some of the children went by coach and were met somewhere between London and Hartfield by Mr. Woodhouse’s carriage and driver, who brought them the rest of the way. Austen actually clears up this little detail:
Mr. Woodhouse "thought much of the evils of the journey for [Isabella], and not a little of the fatigues of his own horses and coachman who were to bring some of the party the last half of the way; but his alarms were needless; the sixteen miles being happily accomplished, and Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley, their five children, and a competent number of nursery-maids, all reaching Hartfield in safety."
In Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels, Rachel Cohen notes that in Austen, many important conversations are had, and many resolutions occur, when the characters are walking outside.
Since Austen’s characters share their homes with servants, it’s not surprising that they resort to country lanes and shrubberies for important conversations...
Lydia Bennet is also someone who disregards this rule, both at home and abroad:
“Now I have got some news for you,” said Lydia, as [the sisters] sat down at table [at the inn]. “What do you think? It is excellent news—capital news—and about a certain person we all like!”
Jane and Elizabeth looked at each other, and the waiter was told he need not stay. Lydia laughed, and said:
“Aye, that is just like your formality and discretion. You thought the waiter must not hear, as if he cared! I dare say he often hears worse things said than I am going to say. But he is an ugly fellow! I am glad he is gone. I never saw such a long chin in my life."
Later, after Elizabeth reads Lydia's letter about her elopement with Wickham, she exclaims, “Oh! thoughtless, thoughtless Lydia..." And soon she wonders, “was there a servant belonging to it who did not know the whole story before the end of the day?”
“I do not know. [answers Jane]. "I hope there was. But to be guarded at such a time is very difficult. My mother was in hysterics... "
After several days of anxiety, Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, can't refrain from asking Jane and Elizabeth: “I beg your pardon, madam, for interrupting you, but I was in hopes you might have got some good news from town, so I took the liberty of coming to ask.”
She uses that apologetic phrase, "taking the liberty," to excuse herself for asking about the family's personal life. The girls are so excited to hear that an express letter has arrived from town, that they run to look for their father, "too eager... to have time for speech."
The butler sees them running from room to room, guesses what they are doing, and says, “If you are looking for my master, ma’am, he is walking towards the little copse.” [And because we think of the Bennets as poor, as people who should be economizing for the future, are we surprised that their household includes a butler?]
Back outside the girls go, to have their private conversation with their father in the open air, and go over the amazing news in the letter -- Lydia and Mr. Wickham have been found, and they are to marry.
The good news of Lydia's impending marriage to "one of the most worthless young men in Great Britain" means that the family can tell the servants and the entire neighbourhood. "Oh! Here comes Hill!" exclaims Mrs. Bennet. "My dear Hill, have you heard the good news? Miss Lydia is going to be married; and you shall all have a bowl of punch to make merry at her wedding.”
And of course, it's hard to have an affair or elope with servants around. Lydia managed to run away with Wickham, but the "want of common discretion, of caution" exposed Henry Crawford's dalliance with Maria Bertram. Maria put "herself in the power" of her mother-in-law's servant.
Lack of discretion also ruined Colonel Brandon's planned elopement with Eliza, the girl he loved. "We were within a few hours of eloping together for Scotland," he tells Elinor. "The treachery, or the folly, of my cousin's maid betrayed us."
Mrs. Yonge, Georgiana Darcy's governess, is actually an accomplice in Wickham's plans to elope with the young heiress -- another rare example of a servant showing agency in Austen's novels, although fortunately the plot is foiled. Mrs. Yonge, although important to the plot, never appears in person in Pride & Prejudice.
Upright Anne Elliot in Persuasion would never have eloped with anyone, and she wouldn't have put herself in the power of a servant, either. There is no mention of Anne having a lady's maid. She doesn't seem to pay much attention to servants. Her friend Mrs. Smith asks her, ‘Did you observe the woman who opened the door to you, when you called yesterday?’
Anne has no idea. "No. Was not it Mrs. Speed, as usual, or the maid? I observed no one in particular."
The Muse and Hearth podcast comments that the servants are “visible at every turn, they’re almost distracting from the main characters" in the latest movie version of Emma. Footman stand at attention in the parlor, rather than out in the corridor, hearing every word that passes. Mr. Knightley strides around naked in front of his valet. Emma imperiously directs the servants with wordless little gestures.
The movie turns Mr. Woodhouse's gentle selfishness into tyranny for comic effect -- but also to make a social statement.
Mr. Elton unveils Harriet's portrait and flings the covering at a servant without turning around. She is startled, but she catches it. The moment is a comic one but it also serves to reinforce our ideas about how servants were treated in the past.
As Muse and Hearth remark, there is nothing wrong with making a movie that portrays the servants as real characters who intrude on the story and react to the action, but the fact is, this is not how Austen portrays servants. This interpretation strays a bit from Austen.
Paolo Foggi, Percy Bysshe Shelley's real-life servant from history, appears in my novella, Shelley and the Unknown Lady. He turns from being an ingratiating servant to wanting to get his revenge. Click here for more about Shelley and the Unknown Lady, which will be on special promotion next week.