Situations Vacant

Dinah Birch

  • The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below by Bruce Robbins
    Duke, 261 pp, £13.95, June 1993, ISBN 0 8223 1397 9

It must be many years since any girl spoke of going into service. The language of labour has changed. Farm workers are now described as full-time agricultural technicians; kitchen maids have turned into catering assistants. Thinking about what service was like, and how it was represented in language and literature, is a way of thinking about deep transformations in our culture. Servants are survivors from a pre-industrial world of mutual dependency and obligation. But they are also the focus of difficult transitions, as social mobility and new wage-based economies invade the older social frameworks of the large household. Conceding too much in an oddly self-abasing conclusion to his expansive account of literary servants, Bruce Robbins declares himself ‘ready to grant that I have not been talking about what is necessarily most complex, sophisticated, profound or even interesting in the English novel’. Do not believe him. The relations he perceives between servants and those they serve are dense with complexity and sophistication. The fictional traditions of the servant are rooted in drama, where the slave, clown or servant is often a crucial intermediary between play and audience. Theatrical servants, from Plautus onwards, know that what they are engaged with is only a play, and they can be trusted to deflate the dignified pretensions of their masters. Preoccupied, like the audience, with making a living in a difficult world, they are more interested in survival than in tragic fate – though they can touch or even cause tragedy if they attempt to interpret their lives in terms borrowed from their employers, as Malvolio or Iago exceptionally do. By and large, however, their business is with the comic persistence of life.

It is this resilience that defines the literary representation of the servant. The servant is often the interface between the reader and the text’s scheme of values, which is regularly undercut by his, or her, canny presence, still winking at the audience. The strongly theatrical heritage of servants means that fiction’s pretensions to realistic truth are challenged by their presence. The servant’s disobedience, or even fidelity, becomes a means of breaking free from the ground rules of realism. Freedom within service is marked in the servant’s language. Full of proverbs (the proverbial servant is as old as Sancho, or older) and malapropisms, quotations and garrulous eccentricities, the language of the servant can express a refusal to follow directions issued from above. As Dickens’s Susan Nipper (loyal and memorably insubordinate servant to the Dombey family) retorts, ‘it’s one thing to give orders, and quite another thing to take ’em.’ Placed in the margins of the novel’s characterisation and action, the apparently inconsequential gossip of servants creates space in which the fiction is at liberty to move beyond itself. Sam’s Wellerisms in The Pickwick Papers, Sally’s tangled maxims in Ruth, or Yellowplush’s verbal aberrations in The Yellowplush Papers are all more than a comic undertow: they provide another way of seeing the motivation and action of the dominant characters. In part, such unlettered characters are the object of authorial satire, reassuring readers (often servants themselves, in the 19th century) of their distance from ignorant servitude. But the inventiveness of their verbal aberrations also invites the reader to complicity; we are drawn into their oblique perspectives by their decorative and unmanageable language, which, like Thackeray’s Yellowplush, is constantly ‘violetting the rules of authography’.

Servants are down-to-earth, robust, on the side of life. They are also habitually on the side of death – so long as it is their employers’, and not their own. One of their tasks is customarily to carry the news of death into the narrative. Sometimes this is literally done, as when the butler in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, with his face ‘blanched to a dead whiteness’, brings the news of Harry Carson’s murder to his family. More often, the implication of mortality is carried in the mute presence of their inexorable work, as it is in the meek, toiling housemaids and hurrying messengers who move on the edges of Thackeray’s fiction. Such figures embody silent gestures towards the relentless round of birth, labour and death from which the central protagonists, with their futile schemes and aspirations, are vainly trying to escape. Occasionally, servants actively wish their masters or mistresses dead, directly or indirectly, and are seen to relish their narrative mission of bringing death into the world. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness provides a fierce instance:

Suddenly the manager’s boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt:

‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead.’

A servant’s alliance with death, the final leveller, is more usually submerged. Emily Brontë’s Nelly Dean, with her brisk insistence that the families she serves should eat their dinners up and generally try to behave more sensibly, is at first sight just the sort of practical and reasonable body who can be depended on to keep life going. And so, in part, she does. But she has other allegiances. Nelly is always quick to imagine death (‘Supposing he should be dead!’ she says at one point of Hindley, who is indeed about to drink himself into the grave), or to welcome it: ‘“She’s fainted or dead,” I thought: “so much the better. Far better that she should be dead than lingering a burden and a misery-maker to all about her ... I don’t know if it be a particularity in me, but I am seldom otherwise than happy while watching in the chamber of death.”’ Charlotte Brontë, too, merges the figure of the servant with the controlling voice of the narrator. Jane Eyre is a determined survivor, but those who come into contact with her have notably short lives, as Rochester presciently observes:

‘I have been with my aunt, sir, who is dead.’

‘A true Janian reply! Good angels be my guard! She comes from the other world – from the abode of people who are dead.’

Jane’s master is permitted to survive, but in a ruthlessly diminished state. Robbins drily notes that ‘only enough of Rochester is left as to permit the forms of matrimony.’ Dickens, too, gives us numerous servants who hover round sick-beds (Mrs Gamp, Mark Tapley), and sometimes identify with death in a more enterprising sense (Jagger’s housekeeper Molly, or Lady Dedlock’s maid Mlle Hortense, who both turn out to be murderers). His narrative energies are closely bound up with his authority as preserver or destroyer of the lives he imagines. Like Nelly Dean, Dickens is seldom anything other than happy while watching in the chamber of death. His perspective is usually closer to that of the servant than to the deluded or untrustworthy grand, or would-be grand, among his characters. Peggotty, humbly loving and faithful, nevertheless reports the death of Clara Copper-field with a sentiment strangely approaching triumph, as a predicted and welcome event: ‘Oh Davy! the time had come when my first parting words to you were true – when she was glad to lay her poor head on her stupid cross old Peggotty’s arm – and she died like a child that had gone to sleep!’ Clara’s son David, his retrospective narrative voice moving between the worlds of service and gentility, speaks for Dickens in musing on the socially ambitious Em’ly: ‘I have asked myself the question, would it have been better for little Em’ly to have had the waters close above her head that morning in my sight; and ... I have answered Yes, it would have been better.’ David’s feelings about Peggotty, his second mother, are notably different: ‘If she had died, I cannot think what I should have done, or how I should have acted out the tragedy it would have been to me.’ But Peggotty, like most of the servants in Victorian fiction, sturdily refuses a tragic part. Ladies and gentlemen die, children die (rich or poor), beggars, workers in factory and mill, prostitutes, destitutes, duchesses, soldiers and clergymen and artists, all supply the pages of Victorian novels with an unfailing supply of affecting corpses. Their servants, with few exceptions, live on.

Bruce Robbins’s magisterially learned and wide-ranging book looks backwards over social structures, tensions and co-operations that have defined our shared past for centuries. His work looks backwards in other ways too. First published in 1986, and now reissued in paperback, it is resolutely Marxist in methodology and vocabulary. It is hard to believe that only eight years have passed since it first appeared. No ambitious and alert critic (Robbins is both) could bring out a book quite like this today. It blithely exhibits phrases (‘always already’ is a special favourite) that once shone with fashionable knowingness, and have since faded into asinine cliché. More telling still are the assumptions that underlie its ideological groundwork. Robbins knows that it is his vocation to speak for ‘the lost cause, the minor and the marginal’. But he sees himself fulfilling this task (which he conceives as a moral one) from a position of cultural ascendancy, and seems untroubled by the thought that his dismissal of cheapening capitalist values might in itself dwindle into the marginalised utterance of a lost cause. It is a performance that almost induces nostalgia, as a reminder of how spirited the best Marxist criticism used to be, before its conviction was sapped by the international failure of Communism. Marxist criticism as useful as this has become as rare as a faithful servant.

Servants, in fiction if not in life, have power, and it is this hidden strength, operating from below, that chiefly interests Robbins. It is not limited to the capacity to survive. Servants frequently drive the plots of novels, acting as doubles (as Peggotty shadows Clara’s identity as mother), and commenting explicitly or implicitly on what befalls the families they serve. They usually know, better than their betters, what is really happening. Holding and discovering secrets, their disclosures are often the means of the plot’s resolution. Thackeray is perpetually conscious of the servant’s watchful presence in the puppet drama of Vanity Fair:

You see a woman in a great party in a splendid saloon, surrounded by faithful admirers, distributing sparkling glances, dressed to perfection, curled, rouged, smiling, and happy: Discovery walks respectfully up to her, in the shape of a huge powdered man with large calves and a tray of ices – with Calumny (which is as fatal as truth) behind him, in the shape of the hulking fellow carrying the wafer-biscuits. Madam, your secret will be talked over by those men at their club in the public house tonight

The admirers may be faithful, but these servants will not be. They know too much.

Does the reader identify with the common pragmatism of servants, or with the more exalted ambitions of the characters they serve and observe? Robbins suggests that much of the novel’s rising history in the 19th century is entangled with this question. The bourgeoisie, in his interpretation, ‘creeps into fiction through the servant’s entrance’. Better, in many ways, to be a resourceful Sam Weller or a solid Nelly Dean than the potentially heroic but infinitely more incompetent ladies and gentlemen who are supposedly their superiors. Later, an increasingly secure and better educated middle class tends to withdraw from identification with the capable servant figure, and the social distance between service and mastery becomes more marked. Trollope, his commercial instincts acutely sensitive to the changing fantasies of the novel-buying public, moves from accounts of the more or less humble (The Warden, The Three Clerks) to the private lives of the rich and glamorous (The Prime Minister, The Duke’s Children). Even in the earlier books he is never much interested in servants. His successful writing career, seriously under way in the 1850s, diverges from the literary strategies of his great forbears – Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontës. George Eliot’s protagonists also tend to move up the social scale, from the modest Scenes of Clerical Life in 1858 to the more aristocratic Daniel Deronda in 1876, but she, too, rarely concentrates on a servant. In the English modernist novel, the surviving tradition of the servant evolves and declines into something approaching symbol. Lawrence’s Mellors is by no means without power, nor is Woolf’s care-taking Mrs McNab. But they are tenuous creatures beside Sam Weller and Jane Eyre, and it would be ridiculous to want to be them.