Book review

Supplementary: On servants and their powers of invisibility

Much has been written about the invisibility of servants in society, an invisibility that is apparent in Austen’s novels. The middle class families that we follow in these texts are supported by a large cast of characters who wash their clothes, clean their houses and cook their food, but whose existence is barely acknowledged and who are largely silent. Convention of the time and for decades to come dictated that the upper classes act as if the servants attending them did not exist. Because many employers disliked seeing servants at work, housework had to be done before the family or their guests breakfasted. In larger houses to avoid awkward encounters between master and servants the latter used special entrances and corridors. Doors linked to connecting corridors were covered by screens, fake bookcases or wallpaper, so that servants could appear quietly and efficiently when called. The concept of a tradesman’s entrance at the back of a house has persisted to the present day in many parts of the UK.

There is a really striking example of this phenomenon in ‘Sense and Sensibility’. It’s worth first reading this extract from chapter 16. I have edited it slightly but I think you will spot what I mean:

One morning, about a week after his (Willoughby’s) leaving the country, Marianne was prevailed on to join her sisters in their usual walk. …Amongst the objects in the scene, they soon discovered an animated one; it was a man on horseback riding towards them. In a few minutes they could distinguish him to be a gentleman.“

Marianne, in a case of wishful thinking,  mistakes the man for her missing lover, even though Elinor warns her that “The person is not tall enough for him, and has not his air.” It turns out the gentleman in question is Edward Ferrars, who on reaching the ladies “dismounted, and giving his horse to his servant, walked back with them to Barton, whither he was purposely coming to visit them.”

So at the risk of stating the obvious, let’s analyse what happens there. They spot a man on horseback coming towards them. He is unquestionably alone. Not a man and his companion or servant, just a man. As he gets nearer there is something about his appearance – we are not told what – that allows the ladies to deduce that he is a gentleman. This could be his clothing, his bearing (air), his horse, or something else. A few yards later, all of a sudden he has acquired a servant, who can take care of his horse for him.

I suppose there are any number of theoretical explanations for this sudden appearance, but for me the most obvious one is that the servant was there all the time, but is just not considered worthy of mention. He is so unimportant he just doesn’t count, or is effectively invisible.

There is a further example of this phenomenon towards the end of the novel, (chapter 47) when the rumour of Edward Ferrars’ marriage reaches the Dashwood ladies. What is striking in this extract is that it is one of the few instances in all Austen where a servant gets to speak at length to his employers. The phrases in brackets are my annotations, of course.

“Their man servant had been sent one morning to Exeter on business; and when, as he waited at table, he had satisfied the inquiries of his mistress as to the event of his errand, this was his voluntary communication—

I suppose you know, ma’am, that Mr. Ferrars is married.”

(This in itself is pretty remarkable. Although the anonymous servant has thus far been replying to questions from the ladies, his comment about Mr. Ferrars is a “voluntary communication” – he offers up this information without being asked. In many other households this would have been considered impertinent – you speak when you are spoken to, and not before.)

Marianne gave a violent start, fixed her eyes upon Elinor, saw her turning pale, and fell back in her chair in hysterics. (Again) Mrs. Dashwood, whose eyes, as she answered the servant’s (still no name) inquiry, had intuitively taken the same direction, was shocked to perceive by Elinor’s countenance how much she really suffered, and a moment afterwards, alike distressed by Marianne’s situation, knew not on which child to bestow her principal attention.

The servant (still), who saw only that Miss Marianne was taken ill, had sense enough to call one of the maids, (who also has no name) who, with Mrs. Dashwood’s assistance, supported her into the other room. By that time, Marianne was rather better, and her mother leaving her to the care of Margaret and the maid (ok, you get the point), returned to Elinor, who, though still much disordered, had so far recovered the use of her reason and voice as to be just beginning an inquiry of Thomas, (at last!) as to the source of his intelligence. Mrs. Dashwood immediately took all that trouble (all that trouble? hardly a day’s shift down the mines, is it?) on herself; and Elinor had the benefit of the information without the exertion (stretching the definition of the term exertion here) of seeking it.

“Who told you that Mr. Ferrars was married, Thomas?”

“I see Mr. Ferrars myself, ma’am, this morning in Exeter, and his lady too, Miss Steele as was. (we can tell Thomas is working class because he makes grammatical mistakes in his verb cases) They was (were, young man) stopping in a chaise at the door of the New London Inn, as I went there with a message from Sally at the Park to her brother, who is one of the post-boys. I happened to look up as I went by the chaise, and so I see directly it was the youngest Miss Steele; so I took off my hat, and she knew me and called to me, and inquired after you, ma’am, and the young ladies, especially Miss Marianne, and bid me I should give her compliments and Mr. Ferrars’s, their best compliments and service, and how sorry they was they had not time to come on and see you, but they was in a great hurry to go forwards, for they was going further down for a little while, but howsever, when they come back, they’d make sure to come and see you.” (very little sentence structure, another indication of Thomas’s lack of formal education).

“But did she tell you she was married, Thomas?”

“Yes, ma’am. She smiled, and said how she had changed her name since she was in these parts. She was always a very affable and free-spoken young lady, and very civil behaved. So, I made free to wish her joy.”

Thomas is then grilled in detail as to what he see, what happened, etc. Finally:

“Mrs. Dashwood could think of no other question, and Thomas and the tablecloth, now alike needless, were soon afterwards dismissed.”

Yes, you read that right, Thomas and the tablecloth were alike needless. A servant and a piece of linen are lumped together, inanimate objects, both worthless.

Is Austen reflecting the contemptuous attitudes towards servants of her class, or satirising them? It is hard to tell – Mrs Dashwood can be thoughtless but she is never cruel or impolite, even to servants.

What do you think?


7 thoughts on “Supplementary: On servants and their powers of invisibility

  1. The lack of servants in her novels I think probably reflects the readership she wanted – only people in the leisure classes had time and education enough to read novels and would they have wanted to read those with servants as significant characters?
    I don’t think she would deliberately say anything cruel about servants, she’s being satirical as you suggest.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Reading Bug says:

    I don’t think Austen or other writers of this time were deliberately editing the domestic servants out of their novels; it was I suspect more a case of them just not noticing them.


  3. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #46 – Book Jotter

  4. Very interesting. This actually struck me more watching the 1995 film adaptation than it did in the book (well done picking up on those subtleties — I didn’t!). I was very surprised by the scene in which we see Elinor telling the entire staff that her family is leaving Norland. We NEVER see scenes like that in period films, and I thought it was an interesting decision on the screenwriter and/or director’s part to add it. And then there was ANOTHER scene in which a female servant actually got a lengthy line or two of dialogue before we ever got to Thomas and his news about the Ferrars. It was actually quite jarring to see/hear them for once.

    This topic is getting me excited to read Jo Baker’s Longbourn, though I have no idea whether it’s supposed to be any good…

    Liked by 1 person

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