It is the custom of “Society” to abuse its servants,—a façon de parler, such as leads their lords and masters to talk of the weather, and, when rurally inclined, of the crops,—leads matronly ladies, and ladies just entering on their probation in that honoured and honourable state, to talk of servants, and, as we are told, wax eloquent over the greatest plague in life while taking a quiet cup of tea. … It is another conviction of “Society” that the race of good servants has died out, at least in England, although they do order these things better in France…
The sensible master and the kind mistress know, that if servants depend on them for their means of living, in their turn they are dependent on their servants for very many of the comforts of life; and that, with a proper amount of care in choosing servants, and treating them like reasonable beings, and making slight excuses for the shortcomings of human nature, they will, save in some exceptional case, be tolerably well served.
Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management,
Chapter 41, “Domestic Servants.” 1861
“Oh my god, like you’re rich? So like, do you have servants?”
That question was posed to me verbatim once during fellowship time at a UU church. It came out of nowhere—I hadn’t announced my circumstances to anyone. But some fair assumptions had been made about me based on a gathering we hosted at home, and I think also my ‘confidential’ pledge card. Word gets around. And that’s last real point of connection to Unitarian Universalism this long little essay will have. I want to talk about a more general stereotype.
I’ve heard that question many times before. I hate it. It feels like an attempt to draw a demarcation between me and the questioner. It implies that my life is unusually luxurious at the expense of someone else’s industrious servitude. And you know what? It’s not an easy question to answer: No, I don’t have servants like that. Yes, I do have servants. You have servants too. Sometimes, I am the servant.
No, I don’t have servants like that.
Uniformed maids? Not like you’re imagining, but my Nana did. She lived mostly in Manhattan throughout the year. She had live-in domestics up until the 1970’s. It wasn’t always so out of the ordinary or even a class marker of the very elite. After all, The Jeffersons and The Brady Bunch also had live-in maids at the time.
Nana’s apartment, a “Prewar Classic 8 Dupe” is still in the family. The building was designed, about a hundred years ago, with the necessity of live-in domestics in mind. A door from the kitchen opens to the “service staircase” and a short hallway with narrow maids’ rooms. Times have changed enough that no unit owners in the building use their maids’ rooms for the originally intended purpose of sleeping quarters. One on that hallway we call the storage closet and the other is where our washer and dryer are; the rest belong to the other units on the floor.
No one ever had to peel Nana’s grapes or set out twenty-five Diptyque Baies candles for her, but she was very reliant on her help. By the time I was born in the 1980’s, Nana was down from a domestic staff of 11 at its height to a part-time maid/cook (Adelajda), and a “secretary” (Marikay) whose duties included the grocery shopping. There’s nothing in my culinary repertoire that tastes “just like grandmother used to make,” because she didn’t know how to make much besides two near-venomous Rob Roy cocktails a day. Of course, being just a little kid I never really tasted one of those and would have to reconstruct it from the maraschino cherry. (If you try that recipe, I’m told that Nana would have doubled down on the Chivas and halved the vermouth, but that’s a tale for another day.)
Yes, I do have servants.
I’m not my grandmother. I make my own bed in the morning. I do know where my neighborhood supermarket is and its layout. I Woolite my own delicates. Cooking is my stress relief activity. But still: I do have servants.
Here’s the part that is different from most people who don’t have my means: I live in a luxury building that has an attended front desk. They sign for and bring up deliveries, send out and bring up the dry cleaning, arrange for maintenance down to burnt-out light bulbs. They’re an enormous help with luggage and wheelchairs, and they can help with more elaborate requests. The complex includes a hotel, and you can get room service sent to your apartment and other typical guest services. It’s come in handy when I’ve run out of toilet paper, I will say that.
I have a cleaning service. The same company sends me not-always-the-same people who wear the same logo-emblazoned polo shirt. My husband and I used to do all the cleaning ourselves but the extensive travel we did for work and the onset of disabilities started to result in a dirty home. I started the cleaning service at once a month. We’re up to twice a week now. They do the major housework like vacuuming, dusting, scrubbing, wet mopping. We wash our dishes and empty our trash and fold our laundry and so on. A big reason for why they come so often is to keep their workload light.
I try to treat these people “like reasonable beings, and making slight excuses for the shortcomings of human nature,” as Mrs Beeton suggested. I’m more apt to put it “with respect for their inherent worth and dignity.” I need their help and even if I’m paying for it, I think they deserve to feel that I’m grateful. I hope I succeed in being kind and generous with my servants. How are you with your servants?
You have servants.
I learned the word ‘doyenne’ by looking it up in my school dictionary when Nana’s obituary referred to her as a “cultural doyenne.” She was a busy woman, who served as a trustee of several schools and museums, was active in her church (late in life she became a Dame Commander of the Holy Sepulchre), and busy with philanthropy that was intricate at times. She kept up with or organized the charity galas that mattered to “society” and when my grandfather was alive, handled all his “social obligations.” And she was an engaged and loving mother and grandmother. In short, she was something like the archetypical mid-century executive’s spouse. To accomplish all that without domestic staff in her day would have been unthinkable, perhaps even impossible. Busy people have to delegate or they burn out.
I’m busy like my grandmother was. You probably are too. And to do all of what we have to get done in making our lives, we get help. Just as you order à la carte from a restaurant these days instead of expecting the standard table d’hôte of a bygone era, you’re taking advantage of other service tasks on an as-needed basis. For instance, domestic staff who prepare and serve meals are very uncommon these days, but restaurants are far more common and varied. To show you how Service is far more democratised, I came up with these comparisons of how the timeless need for a helping hand is filled:
|Early 20th Century Service
Live-in or Full Time
|Early 21st Century Service
On-Demand or Automated
|Chauffeur||Uber/cab driver, airport van, quick lube, car wash|
|Governess||Babysitter, SAT prep tutor, after-school childcare, school teacher, au pair|
|Groundskeeper||Pool service, lawn and tree service, plow service, dog walker, sprinkler system|
|Footman||Waiter, catering service, baggage attendant|
|Cook||Pizza delivery, 24-hour convenience store clerk, microwave foods|
|Butler||Events planner, wine educator, alarm system, voicemail|
|Horse trainer||Cable TV technician, after school dance program instructor, camp counselor|
Your servants are badly underpaid, not because you’re a cruel and demanding master, but because our society insulates you from direct responsibility for their welfare.
You do have servants. Some of them are badly underpaid, not because you’re a cruel and demanding master, but because the ways that our society has structured the service economy insulate you from direct responsibility for the welfare of your servants. It’s a safe bet that you notice when you’re out in the world how very easy it is to find overbearing masters not treating that help “like reasonable beings, and making slight excuses for the shortcomings of human nature.”
I’m not saying Nana was a saint—I was only eleven when she died but still, I can think of small things in which she was needlessly fussy—but I know she never felt the need to record conversations for quality assurance. She might have got testy from time to time with her servants, but each time a guest interacted with her help she didn’t ask that guest if they were very satisfied, satisfied, neither satisfied nor unsatisfied, unsatisfied, or very unsatisfied, nor use that “empirical data” in making assessments of their worth, wages or continued employment at regular intervals. So before you make judgments about her character based on the way she sought service, I’ll ask you again: how are you as a master to your servants?
I ‘m not perfect. Let’s both try harder.
I am the servant.
I think the main reason why I hate the question about whether or not I have servants is it implies I have never had to do anything servile, and my parents haven’t taught me the value of work. Fill in the blank: “_______ little rich kid.” Sweet? Adorable? Earnest? Or spoiled?
Fill in the blank:
_______ little rich kid.
In a small way, a lot of what used to be done by servants no longer is. About two-thirds of my professional life seems to be about things that domestic or personal staff once might have done. I pour over credit card statements for eight people to be sure there’s no fraud before paying them. I approve monthly payments for co-op fees, alarm systems, landscapers, waiting room magazines and research services. Sometimes I arrange complicated travel. I have a spreadsheet of employee birthdays to be recognized. That’s the kind of minutiae that I know Marikay once did for Nana. So that’s a slight way I do what domestic staff once did, but it’s not the important thing about how at times I am the servant.
Sacrificial giving is the essence of love. It’s true I don’t have to trade physical labor for my living. And it’s true that doing that can be demeaning and dehumanizing in the economic system. Anyone who’s ever used a public restroom knows that consideration for the person who has to clean up later isn’t a universal value. But you know what? Kindness tends to be a universal value. A fortune is not the same thing as good fortune, as the poet William Stafford warned:
If you have things right in your life
but do not know why,
you are just lucky, and you will not move
in the little ways that encourage good fortune.
Those little ways matter more, which is why my parents gave us chores to do to earn our allowances as kids. It’s why this spring when friends asked us to mind their toddler for several days so they could be with a dying family member and then attend to his funeral, we said yes without hesitation. It’s why I sort our home mail into piles for my husband and cousin and don’t just flip through it for my own. It’s why my balance-challenged husband is sure that I will always put the cereal on the middle shelf of the pantry and the ice cream on the middle shelf of the freezer and make sure that I never take the last drinking glass off of the counter. Those are a few of the little ways that I thought of just now. I’m typing in my kitchen.
There are bigger ways, too. If I didn’t know what it was to do something in humility, why would it mean something to stroke a check for a charity that helps low-income women achieve economic independence? How would I make value judgments about the organizations that pitch charitable ideas to us or about the integrity of the people doing the pitching?
Not to know the value of honest work, nor to respect the people who do that work and their effort, is a dark path to travel. In a future post I’ll talk about Acquired Narcissistic Syndrome, but for now, let’s say that that path leads to psychological disturbance and a very unfulfilling life. W H Auden famously quoted a contemporary who quipped that “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.”
I think I know why the others are here and I think it isn’t any different. I thank them for helping me. I try to do the same.
Photo: Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in “Jeeves and Wooster”