Philip V. Allingham has scanned and formatted for html the original article, which appeared in The Cornhill Magazine, 29 (1874): 459-68. Page breaks in brackets permit readers to refer to the print version.

Readers may wish to compare the rebuttal article also written by Linton.

decorated initial 'I' also am a woman;" though, on the whole, I ought simply to say "I am a woman," for only one of those whom old-fashioned grammarians describe as belonging to the worthier gender could have written as one did late in this Magazine "On the Side of the Maids." I am sure it cannot be that one who is familiar with the woes of the gentler sex can have thus overlooked the sorrows of the mistresses of the day. The writer must be one of those inexperienced young men who go up and down the country, upsetting all that has been held sacred as to the duty of women to stay at home and manage their households, and avoid politics, and take care that their husbands are pleased in all things. We know to what lengths these theorists are now going in trying to turn women into what women can never be. Did not I read, the other day, in the coulmns of a respectable newspaper, an announcement that in a "College Chapel" in the East-end of London a certain "Reverend" would commence his ministry by preaching in the morning of a certain Sunday, and that in the evening his wife would preach? What a bouleversement of all one's old ideas of propriety and good sense! Conceive suh an arrangement at Oxford or Cambridge--the head of the College preaching to the undergraduates in the morning and his wife in the evening! I read once in a book "by an ex-Quaker" a story about some person who remonstrated with a Quakeress on the permission given to Quakeresses to preach, on the ground that St. Paul had forbidden preaching to women. Ah," replied she, "but thee knows Paul was not partial to females!"

But, leaving the Quakers alone, I will maintain that none but a mistress can know the sufferings of a mistress, or can realise what it is that women are now suffering at the hands of those who are technically called our servants. Men should not write about them, because they do not understand them, just as they should not write about babies. So I say about politics; they are a fit subject for men to have votes upon, because it is a subject which they understand. Of course I do not say that all men understand them. If they did, would they not all vote on the same side? But what I say is this, that men's interests lie in general matters, in public matters--that is, in things taken on a large scale. For instance, they can understand how we ought to legislate about butchers and bakers and fishmongers; that is, about the rearing of bullocks, and the corn-laws, and the protecting of rivers and fish. How thankful I am to that Mr. Frank Buckland for bringing down the price of salmon to what it is this [459/460] year! But could they settle their actual butchers' and bakers' bills women can? Could Mr. Frank Buckland himself buy a few pounds salmon as economically as the mistress of a family? So, too, men can do pretty well about the police, and wars, and treaties, and affairs on a grand scale; it is only the King of Dahomey who makes women into soldiers; and I wonder that some of those gentlemen who wish to make us women think ourselves miserable when we don't feel so have not proposed that Queen Victoria should have a body-guard of pretty girl-soldiers. But could any man keep a nursery in proper discipline? To those who will have it that there is no ineradicable difference between men and women I put this plain question--Could men manage babies? And as they cannot manage nurseries, so they cannot manage households. Is there, as a rule, anything more deplorable than a bachelor's management of his women servants, when he pretends to keep a house of his own? Then I say that none but a woman can understand the case between maids mistresses, or is to be accepted as an exponent of the sufferings of the mistresses of this year 1874.

Men judge from what they call the à priori point of view, which appears to me to be very much like making their theories first, and then inventing a number of facts to suit those theories. This is particularly the case with the writer who has made this late onslaught upon the unfortunate mistresses of the period. He fancies that because the relations of masters and servants are no longer patriarchal, therefore mistresses have lost all fellow-feeling for their maids. Now what is all this that we occasionally hear about the patriarchal state of things in England long ago? When was there any relation between the master and the servant which did not make the servant perfectly well aware that he was the servant, and not his master's equal, and that a practically different life must be his lot as compared with his master's? There never was such a time of domestic bliss and equality, just as there never was a time when shepherds and shepherdesses wore the pretty little pink and blue and gilt clothes which they wear in Dresden China. I never could get at any proof of the actual existence of this happy state from any of our advanced young aristocratic democrats, or from the ultra-Tories who believe in the golden age, who come to my house or whom I meet elsewhere. They say that women always judge by their emotions, and that they dislike mathematics because it is impossible to extract any sentiment out of Euclid. But I find that men are just as unwilling to be brought to book about their favourite theories concerning the past and the future.

Here, for instance, when I ask for facts from past history to prove that our maids are an ill-used race, and that I ought to let my cook have a pianoforte in the kitchen; or when I examine the historical incidents, or the plays, or the poems, of the real past, I find nothing but illustrations of the greater familiarity that existed between mistress and maid, and between master and man; but that there was any more truly human feeling between the two I can hear of no proofs whatsoever. They associated [460/461] more freely, especially at meals, just as the negro slaves in America associated more freely with their masters and mistresses. But there was at the same time a hard element of serfdom in all the domestic relations of our ancestors which was rarely unfelt.

They were familiar, also, because they were all more or less uneduated, up to a recent period. There is always more or less outward equity when mistress and maid are not separated by that culture which, to a certain extent, affects the tastes and feelings of everybody who can pretend to be what we mean by a lady. All this was natural enough, and so far as it is now changed, the change can no more be laid to the charge of the mistress as a fault, than rich folks can be blamed for having their kitchens under ground in town houses, where land is dear, while they are above ground in the country, where land is cheap. This same necessary poosition of the offices is, in truth, one of the sins which are brought gainst the unlucky mistress. But how is it to be helped? If you live in a town, where the houses are built in rows, there is no possibility of giving servants the same airy offices and bedrooms which are possible when the house stands on its good-sized plot of ground. Does our advocate of the down-trodden maids suppose that in patriarchal days town servants were better lodged than they are to-day? They always lived below the level of the soil, and slept in cramped little rooms immediately under the roof. I am not saying that offices might not be healthier than they are now, and that there is no room for improvement in the ventilation of the bedrooms, not only of the maids, but of the mistresses also. But to run away with the notion that it is only now that these uncommonly smart young women, who condescend to take our wages, are the victims of an inhuman tyranny in respect to the rooms they inhabit, and where they store their brilliant Sunday costumes, is to sacrifice facts to sensationalism.

It must be remembered, too, what are the homes from which these miserable maids first come; what are the rooms in which they have been used to live ever since they were born. Has our censor the smallest knowledge of the bedrooms of the labourers' cottages; or of the living and bed rooms in cities in which our unfortunate servants have passed their days before they entered upon this degrading servitude? If he has, he must know that he is manufacturing sentimental sorrows of which the objects of his compassion have no knowledge themselves. When we contrast the condition of our maids with some ideal state, in which every detail of life shall be regulated by the dictates of an elevated humanity, we must not forget the details of that domestic life from which our servants emerge, or that in every possible respect, except that of freedom (which they are paid to give up), their personal comforts are greater than they have been accustomed to from their childhood. If the misery of their habitation was what I am here told that it is, why is it that maids never inquire as to the rooms they are to sleep in, or as to the comfort of the offices, when they inquire as to the conditions of the situation [461/462] for which they offer themselves. Among the endless reasons, true or false, which they assign for "giving notice to leave," how is it that the kitchen and the bedroom are never the cause that is mentioned, if they are really as sensitive on those points as their advocate would have us think? In reality, our modern sensitiveness in these matters of health and comfort has not yet descended to the level of the servant-maid. We might as reasonably pretend that the odours of a stable are as intolerable to the nostrils of coachmen and their families, who live in a London mews, as they are to the nostrils of their masters.

I remember a little urchin who lived in the East-end of London who was one day sent by his master with a parcel to a place beyond the Belgravian district, and on his way passed through Belgrave and other squares and streets around. "Well!" said his master, on his return, thinking that he would have been deeply impressed with the grandeur of that paradise of the wealthy, "what did you think of all those houses and squares?" "Shouldn't like to live there at no price," said the boy, contemptuously; "why they're all like big, ugly City warehouses!" Just so with the women whom we are charged with lodging in a fashion most distressing to their highly sensitive souls. Our love for ventilation, for fair prospects, for all the dainty things for which our own immediate ancestors cared little or nothing, has not yet reached the hard-working and miserably-lodged multitude from whom our servants are taken; and our dismal grandeur would be to them simply dreariness. "The fresh air and the expanse of her old surroundings" are to the ordinary girl who leaves the country village for London service synonymous with dulness and the absence of all amusement, save horse-play and rough love-making. To the middle-aged and elderly country labourer and his wife, a transportation to London life would be as odious as to his daughters it is delightful. And if it is not delightful, how is it that one sister or cousin after another takes the recommendation of the first of a family who has tried London service, and follows her to this abode of barbarous servitude?

For this is the gist of the charge which our censor brings against the mistress (whom he would always have us imagine to be a "lady") of this present day; that we treat our maids with barbarity. "Take," he says, "the list of what is denied in an ordinary well-conducted house." (The italics are mine.) "No followers; no friends in the kitchen; no laughing to be heard upstairs; no romping for young girls, to whom romping is an instinct all the same as with lambs and kittens; no cessation of work, save at meal-times; no getting out for half an hour into the bright sunshine, save on the sly, or after the not always pleasant process of asking leave; and, above all, no education for the fancy or the intellect beyond a dull magazine for Sunday reading, which is held quite sufficient recreation for lonely Betty, moping in the dreary kitchen on the afternoon of her Sunday in." This is only one of the counts in the indictment against us, but it may serve as a specimen of that barbarity of feeling of which the mistresses of to-day are guilty, as compared with the mistresses of the various patriarchal periods now gone by. [462/463]

Yet, if we want to know what is the degree of tenderness or fellow-feeling with which the affairs of domestic life were conducted in those blissful days, surely our only safe guide is to be found in what we know as to the public legislation concerning the poorer classes. Think then of the old political risings of the multitude, stimulated by the cruel feudal tyrannies. In every instance where we can leaam the real causes of the old popular rebellions, it is plain that the social condition of the people was intolerable, and that the relation between rich and poor, which of course included that of mistresses and maids, was as far from any ideal frendliness and hearty good feeling as the most theoretical of young reformers can fancy he misses in the domestic relationships of to-day. Nothing is easier than to imagine the reality of this same patriarchal relationship, until we come to try its possibility in practice or by past history. But we want something more than fancy sketches; and the unhappy truth remains, that feudalism involved the practice of domestic tyranny; and that even till a few years ago, the criminal law of England, directed especially against the offences committed by the lower grades of society, was horrible and bloodthirsty to the last degree. And nothing will ever persuade me that when men and women were hanged and tormented for those offences to which the poor are specially tempted, the legislation of private households was conducted on any more merciful principles.

It is only, in truth, within the last one or two generations that we have learnt this doctrine of the common humanity of masters and servants, and of the comfortable and the suffering classes, and have begun to consider what we are to another. Now, indeed, all over England there is scarcely a town, or a village, or a parish, where this new care for the poor and sick, and this regard for the rights of those who labour with their hands, is not more or less altering the inner constitution of English society. That such an age should also be conspicuous for its harsh treatment of women-servants, old and young, is a notion which could never be maintained by anyone who is conversant with the facts of the case. Indeed it is difficult seriously to reason with a writer who thus concludes his list of the miseries of his hypothetical clients:--"All grinding work claustral monotony, with the world seen only through the gratings of the area window as the holiday folks flock to and fro--this is English domestic service. And then we wonder that our maids, touched by the fever of this ardent, restless Present, revolt against it, and think their condition hard."

There is an old story about Lord Kenyon, of judicial celebrity, which this picture of our household affairs brings at once to my recollection. He was a very gouty old gentleman, and one day a thief stole his gouty shoes. "Well!" he exclaimed, the only harm I wish the rascal is that the shoes may fit him." So, too, the only harm I wish this advocate of the maids is that he should be transformed into one of the mistresses, and have the realities of a household cast upon his hands. He would speedily learn, if [463/464] he would emerge from his bachelor chambers, and associate with the ladies whom he indiscriminately censures, that he has been making sketches, which have not even the merit of caricatures. "No lady," he tells us, "feels herself degraded by the use of harsh language to her servants, just as no slave-holding lady feels herself degraded if she strikes her slave or orders her out to be flogged." This comes of living in chambers and being waited on by that singular form of womanhood described as a "laundress." Our critic should know that no lady does use harsh language to her servants, and that if in a moment of provocation (for maids are sometimes most grievously irritating) she speaks too harshly, she does feel some sense of shame. To compare the feelings of Enlglish ladies towards their maids with those of slave-holders towards their slaves is just one of those extravagances which none but the ignorance of a volunteer reformer would have ventured on.

Our censor has clearly gone to some inferior lodging-house-keeper, and has asked her for her notions of the way that servants ought treated and how they are treated "in an ordinary well-conducted house," and then he has worked up that valuable and trustworthy information into a sensational paper. How otherwise could he have come to the conclusion that in gentlemen's houses of the professional and aristocratic classes, where the mistress may be assumed to be a "lady," those sufferings are endured? "No followers are allowed!" this is named of their lamentable woes. For my part, I hardly ever heard of a house where "followers" were not allowed, unless where the mistress was one of those exceptionable beings who are rigorous to everybody except themselves. Would our Utopian himself like to preside over household where the maids were permitted an unlimited number of visitors of the male sex? Few ladies that I ever knew have strictly forbidden the visits of "followers" who were engaged to be married at some future time to their maids. And nothing more is possible. Our Utopian does not seem to be aware that it is the custom with English maids to be on friendly terms with two classes of young men, the "walker" and the "follower." The "walker" is simply a recognized companion out of doors, and his vocation is considered perfectly respectable. The recognition of a man as a "follower," on the other hand, implies definite matrimonial intentions. The penny post has now created a third variety of "friend," that is, a correspondent. Young men and servants are now taking to write to one another with no "intentions" whatsoever, but simply for the pleasure of the writing.

"No friends in the kitchen," again, is supposed to be the rule in an "ordinary well-conducted house." For what really "well-conducted" house does such a rule exist; of course with the proviso that they are female friends and respectable friends? For the fact remains that both in town and country not a few servants' "friends" are the very reverse of respectable. That indiscriminate freedom which our reformer recommends is simply an impossibility. Work is work, and not play, and [464/465] involves restrictions which are of absolute necessity, and the proof that maids of English middle and upper society are not the down-trodden creatures whom their patron imagines is to be found in their faces and their appearance. I have been often quite astonished at the number of pretty and cheerful and smiling countenances which one meets with in the servants families spending (let me say) from five hundred to a couple of thousands per year; and I have heard of such things as very plain servants lamenting over their ugliness to their mistresses on the avowed ground that nobody would want to marry them. To suppose that all these women are the victims of a grinding tyranny, breaking their hearts because they are forbidden all healthy laughter and out-door exercise, is to make a demand upon our credulity which can scarcely be admitted.

The funniest part, however, of the sins with which we are charged is that which is set down as the worst of them. "Above all," it is said, "we allow no education for the fancy or the intellect beyond a dull magazine for the Sunday reading " of these miserable beings who "have left their friends and associates, their early affections, their treasured memories." "Suppose, for a moment," the indictment goes on,"that Betty was detected in any endeavours after improvement beyond the three R's. Suppose she set herself to learn French or German, to play the piano, to try her skill in paint or crayons. Would it be allowed? I think not. Some employers, and these are by no means the minority, lament that servants are taught even to write. They maintain that the more ignorant the more likely the machine." And no doubt there are many people, not lodging-house keepers, but ladies, who do believe in the virtue of profound ignorance, and even think that servants would be the better if they could neither read nor write. But such persons think precisely the same about all women. They are as cordial in their dislike of the better education of their own daughters in the drawing-room as that of this imaginary Betty in the kitchen. Girls have no business to think, they hold. "It was not so when I was young," they say; and the freedom of young ladies to-day is perfectly scandalous. But setting aside the dreadful severity with which ladies like these regard anything like the cultivation of their servants' brains, is it not the fact that the value of education, as a means for enabling men and women to accomplish the ordinary work of daily life well, has now spread widely in all the better ranks of English life; and that it is chiefly in the sham genteel that this vulgar jealousy of the education of domestic servants still thrives in all its old coarse luxuriance? But the conception which our critic has formed of what is desirable or possible is ludicrous. "Suppose Betty set herself to learn French or German, to play the piano, to try her skill in paint and crayons." That she would be forbidden to play the piano is certain, but by whom? By her fellow-servants quite as much as by her mistress; they would hold the noise to be intolerable, as unquestionably it would be. But the notion is a dream and not worth serious attention. I am sure that our censor cannot play the pianoforte himself, or he would [465/466] realise in some degree the conditions under which Betty would practise, and the fearful and futile process which he advocates. Whether the typical tyrant who makes her life a burden to her would turn her away if she took to learning French or German, and to painting and drawing, is a question which may be left unanswered until we see some signs of a linguistic or aesthetic epidemic among our cooks and housemaids. Only, if by any chance our reformer should hear of the existence of an aspiring soul bent upon grammars and drawing-books, instead of ribbons and brooches, I do entreat him to let me know of her address, that I may straightway communicate with such a jewel, being satisfied that she would have better brains, and therefore be a better servant, than ninety-nine out of every hundred of those extremely non-literary and unaesthetic damsels who now condescend to work for us for ever-increasing wages.

In fact, the gentleman who has kindly undertaken to admonish th mistresses of England has clearly not made the laws of political economy an element in his studies. It is quite true that there is a degree of coldness of manner, and a deficiency of personal interest, in some English households between the employers and the employed, in some families not of the lodging-house type. This is a fault which can only be mended by a change in the relations and manners of all classes of English life. It is partly the result of that political freedom which none would give up in exchange for the most pleasant of all continental varieties of social intercourse. English political liberty is a compound of singular and apparently contradictory elements, which is known nowhere else in the world. We are democratic, aristocratic, and royalist all in one. Everybody wants to rise, many do rise; our riches are enormous and our poverty terrible. The practical effect has been, united with the effects of our depressing climate, to create a general jealousy among classes, among coteries, and among religious bodies, which chills the free intercourse of one with another. And that wall of mingled shyness, and hauteur, and independence, which exists between master and man, is found standing between mistresses and maids in household affairs as it is everywhere else. In word, everybody is afraid of being "familiar" with anybody else, lest the inferior should "take advantage" and presume to be offensive.

And when Cato, in his wanderings, leaves his chambers in the Temple, and takes up his abode in some highly respectable boarding or lodging house, in order to gather materials for exposing the miseries of English "serfdom," as he calls it, he mistakes the habits, and manners, and language of the "lady" who keeps his lodging or boarding house for those of the genuine English lady whom she affects to represent. "Quite the lady," is the favourite term which she applies to those with whom she herself associates, and who speak of her as being "quite the lady." It is, indeed, from persons who are "quite the lady" that this fancy picture of "the mistresses" is sketched. And that it generally applies to those who are "quite the lady" I do not pretend to deny.

But, as I have said, our Cato has not learnt his elements of political [466/467] economy, or he would have known that the present scarcity of good maids does arise from the "revolt" of their class from the serfdom under which they groan, but from the growing scarcity of their numbers in proportion to the increase of demand for a supply. It is not that the buxom girls of our country villages cannot wean themselves from the tender affections of home-life, or give up the sweet breezes of the cottage garden, with its open sewer and the neighbouring pond. They are more eager than ever to quit the rural for city life, for servants are scarcer in the country than they are in London itself. It is simply this; that the supply is less than it was wont to be, and that the mistresses who need their services are more numerous than ever. The country population is absolutely diminishing through the absorption of small holdings into large properties, while modern farming, through the use of machinery, requires a diminished supply of labour, and indeed can only prove a paying species manufacture through resort to the engineer. Country girls, therefore, enter domestic service in fewer numbers than before, and undoubtedly the diminution will go on from year to year as agriculture advances.

Then, again, there is now an ever-increasing variety of openings for young women's labour which were unknown to our fathers. Women are now engaged in many kinds of "trades" to a vast extent, and the jealousy of the men in the same trades is less violent than before. And all those girls employed as shop-accountants, as bookbinders, as tailoresses, as telegraph clerks, as upholsterers, as paper-makers, to say nothing of the multitudes which fill the gigantic factories of the North, are just so many maids withdrawn from household service. They do not fly to other employments because they are pining for the pianos and paint-boxes, or are denied the sweet delights of French and German grammars, or because "followers" are not allowed in indiscriminate profusion in the kitchen, but because the wages paid in trades are very good, and they like to be their own mistresses while they are very young. In these cases, the work is quite as hard as in any gentleman's household, and lasts all day, and the rooms the women live in are worse than the kitchens and the attics to which our wicked exclusiveness condemns the wretched cook and housemaid. The real attractiveness is the freedom of the evening, which means the freedom to go out anywhere and everywhere, and in what company it may please them. Bachelor critics, living in chambers and waited on by laundresses, must surely know enough of the life of the London streets and places of amusement to know that freedom such as this is the very worst license that can be imagined for women of the ordinary age and character of domestic servants.

All the while the demand for the maids is increasing in every part of England. [Author's footnote: In a late number of the Guardian, that most aristocratic of clerical newspapers, in which the clergywomen of England advertise their needs, there were no less than thirty-six ladies' advertisements for cooks, and not one advertisement inserted by a cook wanting a situation.] Let us face this fact, that every new house that is built to [467/468] pay 60 . or 70 . a year, means a demand for, on the average, two maids in addition to those already at work. In larger houses, the fresh demand is proportionally larger. Here and there, it is true, as the "respectability" or fashionableness of a district fades, there is a diminution in number of servants that are kept: but this is more than counterbalanced by the increasing luxuriousness of living among the upper middle and professional classes, involving the employment of a number of women-servants which the past generation entirely dispensed with. All this is, in fact, the natural consequence of the gigantic expansion of our national wealth. There are more people than ever in comfortable circumstances, and those who were wealthy are wealthier than before. The practical effect is, that the scarcity in maid-servants is becoming a serious difficulty, and this difficulty is not confined to families whose incomes are small. People raise the wages they offer: but the spell has lost its power. The servants that are at liberty demand the increase; but, to make a guess, those who are willing to engage themselves are not half in number to what they were thirty or forty years ago. It is just as it is with beef and mutton. Every year the nation wants more and more meat, and the increase in supply bears no proportion to the demand. Of course the breeders ask more for their sheep and oxen, and of course they get what they ask.

What is to be the effect upon the household arrangements of English life, it is impossible to foresee. The remedies proposed by our critic are as visionary as the miseries which he supposes to have driven our unhappy maids to "revolt." Not because they are pining for German irregular verbs, or for scales upon the pianoforte, or for the warm and comfortable bedrooms of their cottage homes, but solely because they feel themselves more and more in demand, shall we, the mistresses, find our servants asking more wages, dressing with more and more outrageous smartness, and altogether putting us to our wit's end in order to live as we have hitherto lived. I have no nostrums of my own to recommend for the cure of the evil. I can only entreat everybody to keep as few women-servants as possible, in order that there may be more of them in the market for hiring. Such schemes as those put forth by our reforming bachelor may take their place among other Laputan speculations, being in fact the most comical of all the communist and socialist speculations of the day. If he can do anything in that direction, let him lessen the numbers and the flaunting attractiveness of the innumerable public-houses which make drunkards of nearly half the cooks in England, in various degrees of inveterateness. But, above all, let him not take the lodging or boarding house keeper as a type of the "mistresses" of England.

A Suffering Mistress.


Victorian Web Victorian Work Victorian Ecomomics Victorian History

Last updated 20 December 2001