Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Service Industry - Servants - servants' character

LETTER I

FROM A LADY INQUIRING THE CHARACTER OF A SERVANT

MADAM, 
    BRIDGET DUSTER having applied to me for a place of maid-of-al1-work, I beg to learn of you, as her last mistress, her fitness for the serious responsibilities of that situation. Having suffered so much from the impertinence and wickedness of servants - (I have often thought they were only sent into this world to torment respectable people), - you will, I am sure, forgive me if I appear somewhat particular in my inquiries. Experience, madam, has made me circumspect. There was a time when I thought all the world as good and honest as myself; but house-keeping wipes the bloom from the human heart, and makes us lock our tea-caddies.
    I have kept house for five-and-twenty years, in which time I have constantly endeavoured to find a servant who should be without a fault; yet, though I have given eight pounds a year with tea and sugar, - would you believe it? - I have never once succeeded. However, I must say it, I like the face of BRIDGET; I never saw a deeper small-pox. As for handsome servants, I never have 'em; they always think more of their faces than their fire-irons, and are puckering up their mouths at the looking-glass when they should be rubbing the door-plate. Curls, too, I never suffer to cross my threshold. I know more than one instance in which curls have destroyed the peace of a family. For my money, a servant can't be too plain: in a word, I think ugliness to be a sort of cheap livery intended by nature for maids-of-all-work - it keeps 'em in their proper place, and prevents 'em thinking of foolishness. So far, BRIDGET'S looks are most satisfactory.
    And now, ma'am, for the article of dress. Servants have never been servants since linsey-woolsey went out. It makes my very flesh creep to see 'em flaunting about, for all the world as if they were born to silk gowns and open-work in their stockings. I have seen a housemaid go out for the day with a parasol! I prophesied her end, and - poor wretch! - so it came about. What I have suffered, too, from such presumption! I once had a creature who copied every new cap I had, violating my best feelings under my own roof! BRIDGET looks a humble dresser, fit for a kitchen ; I trust she is so.
    I hope, however, she is sober. When servants are very plain, they sometimes,to revenge themselves on nature, fly to drink. This is shocking; for, with such people, with all one's locking and bolting, one's brandy is never safe.
    In the next place, does BRIDGET break? Not but what I always make my servants pay for all they destroy; still, they can't pay for one's nerves. Again, there is this danger - they may break beyond their wages.
    Is BRIDGET honest? Pray, madam, be particular on this point, for I have been much deceived. I once took a servant with the finest character for honesty; and, only a week afterwards, detected her giving three cold potatoes to a little hurdy-gurdy foreigner with white mice.
    Is BRIDGET civil? Will she bear wholesome reproof? A servant who answers is my abomination. It is clearly flying in the face of the best interests of society. Surely, people who pay wages have a right to find what fault they please; it is the natural privilege that marks the mistress from the maid. I would have a severe Law to punish a servant who answers - even if right.
    Is BRIDGET an early riser, without any reference to the time she may be allowed to go to bed? A good maid-of-all-work should, so to speak, be like a needle, and always sleep with one eye open.
    Has BRIDGET any followers? Such creatures I never allow. I conceive that a servant ought to be a sort of nun, and, from the moment she enters your house, should take leave of all the world beside. Has she not her kitchen for willing hands always to do something in? And then for company, doesn't she see the butcher, the baker, the dustman - to say nothing of the sweeps?
    Is BRIDGET industrious - is she clean? I hope, for the poor creature's sake, that you may be able to answer these few questions to my satisfaction, when BRIDGET may immediately bring her boxes. With me, her duties will be few, but they must be punctually performed. Indeed, I require a servant to consider herself a sort of human kitchen clock. She must have no temper, no sulks, no flesh-and-blood feelings, as I've heard impudent hussies call their airs and graces, but must go as regularly through her work as though she was made of steel springs and brass pullies. For such a person, there is a happy home in the house of 
    Your obedient Servant,
        PAMELA SQUAW.

LETTER II

FROM A SERVANT, INQUIRING THE CHARACTER OF A MISTRESS.

DEAR MOLLY,
    FINDING that you're in place next door to MRS. SQUAW, and remembering what friends we used to be when both of us lived with the pastry-cook, I have thought fit to write to you to inquire about your neighbour. It is all very fine, MOLLY, for mistresses to haggle about the characters of their maids, but surely we poor servants have as much right to ask the characters of our mistresses.
    However, folks who pay wages will always have the upper hand in this world, whatever to our comfort may happen to 'em afterwards.
    I thank my stars I don't judge of people by their looks, otherwise I wouldn't go into MRS. SQUAW'S kitchen, if it was made of gold; she's dreadful ugly, to be sure, but I don't despise her for that, if her temper's sweet. I can't bear a mistress that's always nagging and nagging. A good noise, once in a way, I don't mind - it brisks up one's blood; but I have known mistresses always pushing their words at you and about you, as if they were sticking pins in a cushion with no flesh and blood.
    How does she like her maids to dress? Mind, I don't insist on ringlets in the house, but when I go out, I'm my own mistress. I've given up two places for my bird-of-paradise feather - it looks quite alive in my white chip! - and would give up twenty. After slaving among pots and pans for a month, it is so sweet to be sometimes taken for a Lady on one's Sunday out.
    And now, dear MOLLY, tell me truly; does MRS. SQUAW drink? I have lived in one family where the mistress kept a bottle in a thing that looked for all the world like the covering of a book. No wages should make me do this again ; and - perhaps I am wrong - but, looking at MRS. SQUAW, I thought I never saw a redder nose. When a mistress has such a habit, a poor girl's character is never safe.
    I've agreed to pay for all I break, but that I don't mind, as I never break nothing - it's always the cat. But then I've known mistresses mean enough to put off a cracked basin on a poor servant. What is MRS. SQUAW'S character for crockery?
    MRS. SQUAW asked me if I had any followers, as she allowed of no such thing. I said - and truly, MOLLY - that I had nobody that followed me; but, MOLLY, there is a young man that I have followed these two years, and will, so long as I've eyes to stare and limbs to move. Such a sweet creature - six feet one inch and a half without his boots! Such a mustachio on his lip - such a delicate thing, just the colour of a leech! He's in the Life Guards, MOLLY ; quite a building of a man. You can't think how fond he is of me; for these last two years he's smoked my wages in cigars. I lost one place about him, and gloried in it! It was one quarter-day, and he came whistling about the area. Mistress saw his red coat, and ringing the bell, asked me what I meant by harbouring a low soldier?  My blood was up like ginger-beer. "It s all very well for you, ma'am," says I, "to say low soldier. But, ma'am," says I, "you don't know what it is to be courted by a Life Guardsman."
    Oh, these mistresses, MOLLY! they think poor servants have no more flesh and blood than a porridge-skillet. They can have their comfortable courtings in their parlours and drawing-rooms; and then, with their very toes at the fire, they can abuse a poor servant for only whispering a bit of love, all among the snow, perhaps, in the area. This is the treatment that often makes poor girls desperate, and drives 'em to marriage long afore their time.
    No followers, indeed! No; they think that the cat and the kettle, and the kitchen clock, are company enough for a poor servant. They never think of us in the long winter nights, when they are playing at cards, or chatting with folks who've dropt in - they never think of us, all alone as we are, without a soul to speak to! No; we must have no followers, though, perhaps, the parlour's ringing again with laughter; and our only chance of opening our lips is the chance of being sent out to get oysters for the company.
    However, dear MOLLY, write me all you know about the character of MRS. SQUAW: if she's sober, and gives civil words and regular wages to her servants. I don't mind having her for a mistress, until the sweet day arrives when I become a soldier's wedded lady. Till then,
    Believe me, your friend and old fellow-servant,
        BRIDGET DUSTER.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1844


see also Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management


see also Guide to the Unprotected in Matters Relating to Property and Income - click here