What is hidden: the myth of the haughty servant

Words: Emily Sandercock

In one of the opening chapters of Charlotte Brontë’s 1853 novel Villette, the country-mouse protagonist, Lucy Snowe, over-tips the porter who carries her bags between her carriage and hotel room. The narrative frames it as a blunder – something the porter will laugh at once she’s gone, congratulating himself for having taken advantage of her – and a sign that she’s not cut out for the city. Afterwards, Lucy is angry with herself.

There are similar scenes in novels by Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Marcel Proust, in which a character commits a faux pas in front of a servant, and then worries about what is behind the servant’s mask of deference, impotently outraged that the servant might be laughing at them but unable to do anything about it because they don’t know for sure that they’re being mocked. 

When servants appear in pre-20th century literature, as more than the mechanism by which a meal is prepared or a carriage driven, they’re there to be mocked or to mock. Françoise, the narrator’s maid from In Search of Lost Time, is a constant figure of fun in the novel for everything from her interest in gossip to her illiteracy. On the other hand, when Proust wants to convey the extent of the aristocrat Charlus’ scornful pride, he describes it as the combined superiority of a queen and a waiter. The narrator makes this observation about Charlus while Charlus is mercilessly ridiculing another guest at the dinner party he and the narrator have just left together; both ‘queen’ and ‘waiter’ are shorthand for arrogance. The combination, though, also undermines Charlus’ right to arrogance: like a waiter, he has a higher opinion of himself than his station should permit. Mocking and being mocked are wrapped together. For servants, the first brings the second.  

The reality of the servant’s position in society is an easy weapon to use against their open mockery, so it is their quiet, hidden judgment that becomes more dangerous. The narrator of Lost Time is obsessed with the inner lives of others, and the idea that they might be lying to him, or concealing parts of themselves. In particular, he’s afraid that Albertine, the girl he keeps in an apartment in Paris, might be cheating on him with other women. He closely observes Albertine’s interactions with her society friends, analysing them frantically, but is perhaps even more obsessive in watching her interactions with serving girls: the flower seller down the street from their apartment, the young girl who delivers for a nearby bakery, and the other who brings the post each morning. Amid his fears, the narrator resents Albertine for, as he sees it, forcing him to look at these girls not as potential lovers for himself, but as potential competitors for Albertine. His desire for them is matched only by his paranoia that they are secretly his rivals, laughing at him with Albertine when he isn’t around. 

Servants who compete with their masters destabilize traditional hierarchy, but they’re also inevitable products of that hierarchy. While servants in general make possible, for other people, the things that we associate with society’s elites – the leisure needed to create art and make scientific discoveries, the wealth needed to construct cities and monuments – they also need to be refined in themselves to make the direct contact with the people they serve palatable. A servant’s knowledge of social rules and politesse is as integral to, for instance, a dinner party, as their labour. 

There are no ideal, invisible servants of the kind that occasionally appear in literature, where rooms can be cleaned without any reference to cleaners, and breakfast served without reference to cooks.

The Remains of the Day paints the picture of the perfect servant, a butler who prides himself on his commitment to his role, and is so refined that he is mistaken for a gentleman by the inhabitants of the small town where his car breaks down while he is on his first vacation in decades. The butler performs ‘gentleman’ as well as any real gentleman. So why shouldn’t the butler who performs gentlemanliness as well as any gentleman be a gentleman himself? The instability of the identities that divide masters and servants is what makes servants a threat.

Unsophisticated servants, though, are not protected from the resentment that haughty servants face. Whether too sloppy or too refined, servants cannot win. Virginia Woolf complained of her maid Nellie Boxall endlessly in letters, for crimes ranging from a refusal to make marmalade to insufficient friendliness towards unannounced guests. It’s a problem if servants don’t perform their duties well, as it reflects badly on the ability of their employers to lead them. But it is also a problem if they perform them too well. Then, they become the proud stereotypes of Proust. In both instances, the servant’s outward subservience is suspected as an illusion. They are either, in the employer’s mind, not doing their work properly, or they are doing it with a hidden, arrogant sneer, a secret competitor for their employer’s station. There are no ideal, invisible servants of the kind that occasionally appear in literature, where rooms can be cleaned without any reference to cleaners, and breakfast served without reference to cooks.

These are tensions that remain with us to this day. If Boxall was transported to the present and shown a ‘Karen’ meme, she would probably recognize Woolf in it. Proust’s narrator might see modern service workers smiling in the face of screaming customers, while secretly filming their meltdowns to post online, as cousins of the servants whom he feared went behind his back with Albertine. We demand masks of deference from service workers, just as we did of servants, but are indignant when they hide anything behind those masks. This is a system we should all be trying to escape.

learn more

  • BOOK: Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury – Allison Light
  • BOOK: Domestic Affairs: Intimacy, Eroticism, and Violence Between Servants and Masters in Eighteenth-Century Britain – Kristiana Straub
  • VIDEO: ‘Ok, But What Did Poor People Wear?

Emily Sandercock is a freelance writer and waitress in Pennsylvania, and recently graduated with an MPhil in American History from the University of Cambridge. Connect with her on Instagram