We also saw that her vulgar characters behave inappropriately, either by not staying properly aloof from their servants, like Lydia, or else fussing and scolding, like Mrs. Norris. But we also saw that servants are indispensable.
In Pride & Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet exults in Jane's engagement to Mr. Bingley, with thoughts of the "fine muslins, new carriages, and servants" her daughter will have. Having lots of servants signifies wealth, as owning a Bentley and a Rolex would today. Really, Mrs. Bennet correctly understands the world she lives in. Her only fault is saying the quiet part out loud.
We recall, too, how Mrs. Bennet was offended by Mr. Collin's supposition that her daughters had helped cook the dinner. In Austen's world, it's only natural that this work be done by a servant.
I will admit to feeling a flicker of impatience with Fanny Price when she visits her family in Portsmouth and sits there, wishing in vain for a cup of tea. Fanny can't get off her fanny to prepare a pot of tea and a light meal because it is beyond her abilities and beneath her dignity...
Fanny Price’s parents struggle in cramped, grimy poverty in Portsmouth but they still cling to the veneer of gentility. being waited on by servants. These servants are, obviously, poorer still.
What if the servants working in the offices at Barton Cottage could overhear the conversations in the poky little parlour when Marianne and Elinor discuss how much money constitutes a "competence."
"What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?" [exclaims the romantic Marianne].
"Grandeur has but little," said Elinor, "but wealth has much to do with it."
"Elinor, for shame!" said Marianne, "money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction... two thousand a-year is a very moderate income. A family cannot well be maintained on a smaller. I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands. A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less.”
Romantic, warm-hearted Marianne insists she doesn't need wealth for happiness, but she does need a Bingley-ish level of income and a "proper establishment of servants." Did Marianne ever wonder if the family servants were happy, after leaving the great house at Norland and going to a cottage in Devonshire, far away from their families? Even if we presume they came out of loyalty and affection for the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters, what is the minimum income the servants can expect to live on, to be happy? Or did Marianne, like other people of her era, believe that Providence had placed their two maids and a man in their station in life?
In The Young Servant; or Aunt Sarah and her Nieces, Aunt Sarah prepares her niece Jane for domestic service. She explains that talented people like painters can't make beautiful paintings without the help of servants to prepare the paints. This thought reconciles Jane to her fate:
Did Austen agree with the idea that Providence places you in a certain station in life? Was she just using a common phrase of the day when she described Sir Walter Elliot as "a foolish, spendthrift baronet, who had not had principle or sense enough to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him"? I discussed the question of rank, and Austen's attitudes toward the class divide, in an earlier blog post in this series, but I am not certain if she believed in the idea of being placed by Providence. I think she might be speaking ironically here.
And if a modern reader scoffs at the idea of being placed in a certain station in life by Providence, consider how many people today actually believe that the position of distant stars determines your personality at your birth.
In the end, there is ample evidence in her letters that Austen cared about the servants in the family but there is nothing in her novels to suggest that she held radical views about social levelling. I get the impression that Austen thought servants needed guidance and some supervision but also deserved respect and consideration. There's no indication that she wanted to do without servants, or thought there was anything amiss in having a gentry class who were waited upon by servants.
In Austen's world, there were no tractors, no threshing machines, no milking machines. In the house, there was no running water, no water heater, no washing machine or refrigerator.
What made the biggest difference in the lives of women? What liberated servants from monotonous toil and drudgery? I nominate electricity. We should look to the changes in daily life brought about by human progress.
In A Contrary Wind, the first book in my Mansfield Trilogy, we meet Miss Lee, the governess who taught Fanny and the Bertram girls, and learn about the man she loved and lost. Click here for more about my novels.