Ich dien

Michael Neill

  • Shakespeare, Love and Service by David Schalkwyk
    Cambridge, 317 pp, £50.00, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 88639 0

‘For some extraordinary reason, the men won’t drink this – but you might like it.’ Holding out a jug of cloudy bitter, still sludgy with hops, our employer stood framed indignantly in the doorway that separated her kitchen from the servants’ quarters. The ‘men’ were the other ranks among the annual tranche of recruits preparing to serve her husband in the British Antarctic Survey: they were expected to drink beer in the hall, while the officer class took cocktails in the drawing-room. The men preferred beer, we were told, and, given the choice, they might well have chosen ‘cloudy’, the connoisseur’s drop, before the filtered blandness of the more expensive ‘bright’ ale; a cask of cloudy bitter, though, needed to rest for 24 hours before it was broached – something her ladyship could hardly be expected to understand. But if the muddy brown liquid that hiccuped from the spigot would not serve the recalcitrant denizens of the hall, it might do for the help.

Early in 1966, when I was 23 years old – married, with a baby, and a graduate student at Cambridge – my wife and I, tired of poverty, entered domestic service. In exchange for lodging and a tiny allowance, we were to act as boilerman and char in a damp Victorian mansion whose châtelaine could no longer afford the retinue of servants for which such buildings were designed. The episode of the cloudy bitter was symptomatic of the style of patronage that governed her relationship with us, occasional gifts of discarded food serving as delicate reminders of our subordinate status. Once or twice, some conversational intimacy might appear to gesture in the direction of our other, academic life; but its absolute unimportance was made clear 11 months later when – under pressure from the conflicting demands of parenthood, cleaning, the University Library and the grumbling coal-fed behemoth in the cellar – I handed in our notice. We chose to see this as the straightforward termination of a commercial arrangement. But for our employer it was something else entirely: the wanton abrogation of an intimate bond, an act of unpardonable disloyalty that brought tears of justified resentment to her eyes.

Since I had spent my early years in a world where the presence of servants – even in modest middle-class homes – was still quite usual, I should perhaps have understood the personal character of this outrage rather better. For a good part of my childhood, we lived in a house with a coal range, paraffin lamps, and water that had to be pumped from a well; this was a world without labour-saving gadgets – without refrigerators, washing machines, electric stoves or vacuum cleaners. Instead there were servants. Although my father was a relatively impecunious army officer, a succession of batmen took care of his personal needs, while my mother was normally assisted in her chores by a maid or housekeeper; for a period, after my brother and sister were born, there was even a Swiss nanny; and then there was the kennelman, retired Fusilier Mulligan, who looked after my father’s pack of regimental beagles, and fed me surreptitiously with dog biscuits during the hunt.

Most of these people, whose faces I still remember with affection, were Catholics, separated from us not only by class but by religion; for this was Protestant-ruled Northern Ireland in the 1950s, a place not altogether unlike the white-ruled South Africa evoked in the frank confessional of David Schalkwyk’s opening chapter. In the apartheid world, the young Schalkwyk ‘was defined legally, socially and … psychologically as a “master”’, even as the material realities of bondage were masked (and painfully complicated) by the emotional bonds built up through years of familiarity and ‘surrogate parenting’. Thus when a white madam said of her black maid, ‘she’s one of the family,’ it was not entirely (or not only) a ‘sentimental obfuscation’.

My parents too, like most people of their class, habitually spoke of their servants as ‘part of the family’; and for us children, wrapped in the warmth of relationships that we took for granted, this was what they seemed to be. So it was strange, when my father returned us to his native New Zealand in 1955, to find ourselves in a country where servants were virtually unheard of. Moulded by the patriarchal certainties of Harrow and Sandhurst, he found himself infuriated by the egalitarian ethos of people who, as he complained, confused service with servility: what disturbed me was the odd sense of emotional depletion in our servantless household – as if in some important sense we had indeed left ‘family’ behind. There was no going back to it, however. When my mother paid a return visit to Northern Ireland in 1981, and went searching for her old housekeeper in Omagh, she was to be met with unexpected coldness, and then to find herself gazing at a shrine to a dead son, bearing the accusatory legend ‘Murdered by the Brits’. As surely as the township risings had done in South Africa, the Troubles had exposed as a nostalgic fiction the comforting belief that master-servant relations belonged inside the affective nexus of ‘family’.

Three and a half centuries earlier, however, when domestic boundaries were differently drawn and ‘family’ was often synonymous with ‘household’, the same language would have expressed a more literal truth. In that world the relationship between masters and servants in many respects resembled that between parents and children – even if ‘a seruants place and dutie’ was acknowledged to be ‘of more abiect and inferiour kinde’, as William Gouge put it in Of Domesticall Duties (1622). By the mid-20th century, the material conditions of service had changed beyond recognition, yet the ideological assumptions that had governed the early modern household continued to colour the language and emotions of master-servant relations into the last twilight of domestic service; only something akin to a parent’s uncomprehending distress at the behaviour of ungrateful children, I now recognise, could have lain behind my Cambridge employer’s wounded response to our desertion.

Now, however, 40 years on, that house on the outskirts of Cambridge seems to belong to a remote past; not only are there no longer servants of the kind our employer expected to retain, ‘service’ itself has become a word largely evacuated of meaning: the ideal of ‘national service’ vanished with conscription, and ‘military service’ is more and more difficult to distinguish from mercenary hire; government bureaucracies have been so extensively corporatised that the idea of a ‘civil service’ seems increasingly quaint; we speak of ‘service industries’ only to distinguish them from the makers of real wealth; and ‘customer service’ has become a risible euphemism for automated answering machines and call centres in Bangalore or St Lucia. Like those still current subscriptions, ‘yours faithfully/truly/ sincerely’ – not to mention the more archaic ‘your humble/devoted/faithful servant’ – these terms are fossils of what the historian Peter Laslett called ‘the world we have lost’, a world in which virtually all social relations, no matter how intimate, were defined by the language and ideology of service.

To sense how this was so, we have only to look at the literature of the early modern period, especially at the drama, where not only the conspicuous physical presence of household servants but a pervasive rhetoric of duty and obedience function as reminders of a society structured on service relations. Yet oddly enough the very pervasiveness of service has, until lately, made its fundamental importance difficult to recognise. Not until the appearance of Mark Thornton Burnett’s study, Masters and Servants in English Renaissance Drama, barely a decade ago, did its place in early modern culture seem worth exploring. Even Burnett’s study was limited by its concentration on the humbler categories of servant, on ordinary domestics and the apprentices whose labours supported the institutions of commerce and manufacture: his emphasis was necessarily on the material conditions of exploitation that governed such employment. But more recent work, culminating in Schalkwyk’s new book, has enabled a more comprehensive understanding of what it meant to ‘serve’ another in Shakespeare’s world.*

It was not simply that most people in early modern England spent at least a portion of their lives in some kind of domestic service, whether in the menial positions assigned to the lower orders, or among the ranks of upper servants – pages, waiting-women, ushers, stewards and so forth – where members of the gentry were to be found. It was rather that each individual’s role in what historians have called the ‘society of orders’ was governed by the duties of ‘office’ and by careful gradations of ‘place’ whose origins lay in the hierarchy of feudal allegiance. So the relation between master and servant provided a template for almost every kind of affiliation: between king and courtier, ruler and subject, patron and client, commander and soldier, employer and apprentice, or even between husband and wife, parent and child, mistress and lover. ‘Trust and service’, a character in Middleton’s The Witch (c.1616) declares, are essential ‘parts of manhood’. Thus, far from being confined to the world of household drudgery, the term ‘servant’ was (in the words of William Gouge) ‘a general title’; since even the greatest nobleman was obliged to serve his king, while the monarch was committed to the service of God. ‘Bound to obey and serve’ was the motto chosen by Jane Seymour when she became Henry VIII’s queen, echoing the glad subservience still proclaimed by the Prince of Wales’s heraldic emblem: Ich dien.

The language of heraldry served as a constant reminder that to engage in service was not simply to undertake a prescribed form of labour, but to participate in a mutually reinforcing theatre of identity – visible in the badged livery masters awarded their servants. Livery was not simply the uniform of a household drudge, but a sign of allegiance, worn (in ceremonial contexts at least) by servants of every kind, among them surprisingly exalted personages. Harking back to the deferential proprieties of pre-Civil War England, the Duke of Newcastle recalled that a wealthy Cheshire knight like Sir George Booth had been proud to appear on St George’s Day clad in the livery of the Earl of Shrewsbury; and, on state occasions, the proudest courtier might, like the humblest of grooms, be clad in a costume that signalled the absorption of his identity into the ‘countenance’ or ‘port’ of his royal master. At James I’s coronation, Shakespeare, who had only recently gone to such trouble and expense to secure a coat of arms for his family, would have had to submerge that hard-won status in the livery that announced his subservient position as one of the ‘King’s Men’.

You are not logged in

[*] Coincidentally, the three most substantial contributions all appeared in 2005: Discourses of Service in Shakespeare’s England by David Evett; Service and Dependency in Shakespeare’s Plays by Judith Weil; and A Place in the Story: Servants and Service in Shakespeare’s Plays by Linda Anderson. There was also a special section devoted to ‘Shakespeare and the Bonds of Service’ in the Shakespeare International Yearbook.