Ode on a Dishclout

Joanna Innes

  • Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England by Carolyn Steedman
    Cambridge, 410 pp, £21.99, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 521 73623 7

Carolyn Steedman’s is a distinctive, probing, inquiring voice. Personal, but not solipsistic. We never forget, reading her books, that there’s a mind in charge, but not one that’s preoccupied with itself: it is always grappling with some other experience, some other way of seeing, which can’t be re-experienced, but can be hunted, glimpsed, located in its habitat, experimentally ventriloquised, considered from different points of view (some critical), or approached indirectly through its impact on others, or through its refracted representations.

Labours Lost presents further results of the larger inquiry from which Steedman’s last book also derived. Master and Servant (2007) was a moving and imaginative study of the relationship between a clergyman-schoolteacher, his house servant and her illegitimate child, in the West Riding of Yorkshire during the last years of the 18th century. The story was told mainly from the cleric’s point of view because the sources have left the servant all but mute. Steedman used the clergyman’s commonplace books to place him in a ‘West Riding enlightenment’ based on the ideas of Thomas Nettleton in Treatise on Virtue and Happiness (1736).

The richness of the source material made it possible for Steedman to achieve great depth of characterisation, both of the people and of their environment. Labours Lost, a study of domestic servants, who were sometimes also farm servants, throughout England, from about 1760 to about 1830, is more diffuse, though it covers much more ground. Its chief concern is with servants in middling households (gentry, professional, trading and farming), not the many-servanted great house.

A good number of middling households in this period – even quite modest tradesmen’s and artisanal households – had at least one servant, and domestic service was one of the most common types of employment for young women. But there are few records which deal systematically with servants, and though they figure frequently in their employers’ correspondence and account books, it’s hard to build up a rich picture of their lives and experience from sources of this kind. While servants haven’t escaped historians’ attention they have, in consequence of the paucity of record, attracted less attention than their ubiquity might have led one to expect, and the studies that have been made, though useful, have been limited in scope and achievement. J. Jean Hecht drew heavily on printed manuals, memoirs and correspondence and focused on servants in atypical great houses; Bridget Hill set out to broaden our understanding of service in smaller households, but also relied heavily on printed sources. Tim Meldrum’s systematic study made use of church and other court records, but he studied only London servants of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and his characterisation of household relationships was a little schematic. Ann Kussmaul’s study of servants in husbandry was in its way brilliant, exploiting administrative records to build up a wide-ranging and suggestive picture from the structure and logic of an obscure employment form, but she was not much concerned with servants’ lived experience, and not at all with domestic service.

Steedman’s sources, especially tax and legal records, have previously been neglected but what makes her book stand out is the quality of imagination it displays. One might describe it as an intellectual history of domestic service, because it is above all an account of the way people thought about service: how servants thought about it, how their employers thought about it, how magistrates, lawyers, tax collectors and MPs thought about it.

It is history at its most conventionally intellectual when it focuses on ways in which ‘labour’ was conceptualised. In the first half of the 18th century, Steedman suggests, labour was conceived above all as a relationship. Society was divided into propertied and unpropertied; the unpropertied were compelled by material need to put their labour at the disposal of the propertied. The labour of the poor was a resource; it fell to the propertied to deploy this resource to general benefit.

She argues that what evolved in the later 18th century was a new conception of labour as a ‘constitutive activity’. The ability to labour was complex. Poor people had to have energy. That energy was material: it had to be fuelled. In addition to a physiology, a physics and chemistry, labour had a mental or emotional aspect: workers had to be in good spirits. If they were depressed, they would not work so well. For that they needed the lightness of heart that came from confidence in their own abilities, and from the expectation that their efforts would be properly rewarded. Writings on health, diet, the ‘animal economy’ and the proper management of the human body were one medium in which these new ideas were expressed, but they were also evident in efforts by the employing classes to conjure up the subjectivity of working people, to try to imagine what motivated them and what made them depressed or happy.

Steedman is concerned to find this thinking at the level of daily life. She shows us John Locke writing to his Somerset friends, the Clarkes, asking advice about servants and ‘weighing up the capacities, abilities and personalities’ of the Clarkes’ maids. In contrast to his thoughts on the toilet training, washing and dressing of children, his comments on servants did not make it into print. She tells us that when Lord Mansfield, the chief justice, was making judgments about the legal status of servants, including one who had come into the country as a slave, he had in his household a black relative of ambiguous status, the daughter of his nephew and a slave woman. William Godwin conceived of a house with servants as ‘inhabited by two classes of being … drawn from two distinct stages of barbarism and refinement’. He imagined creeping along narrow passages to find, in a servant’s room, ‘a general air of slovenliness and negligence, that amply represents … the depression and humiliated state of mind of its tenant.’ Steedman notes that he was then about to set up with Mary Wollstonecraft in neighbouring houses, and had reasons of his own to ponder the effect that servants – perhaps abject and depressed – might have on a household’s children.

Another device Steedman uses to keep the practical, experiential context in the reader’s mind is to shift back and forth between more abstract and more concrete themes. Keeping the two in play is crucial because she means this to be a grounded intellectual history, in which the writings of economists and physiologists figure as ‘stories’ alongside other kinds of story told by contemporaries, in Parliament, in the law courts, to the taxman, in correspondence, in the parlour, in the kitchen. This is an account of thinking about physical activity, and we’re not allowed to forget such activity – chopping vegetables, polishing tables, washing babies’ clouts – or the more inchoate desires and resentments that attended domestic labour and its remuneration.

Labours Lost is a sustained and determined exercise in eavesdropping on all kinds of mental activity connected to the institution of domestic service. Much of what we overhear isn’t very elevating. Steedman likes to catch the employing classes pushing their luck with the taxman. The Worcestershire cleric and schoolmaster John Simpson is shown arguing that his servant is employed to tend his glebe, and so not a ‘male domestic servant’ (and therefore taxable), though he cleaned shoes and cutlery for the cleric’s family and scholars, and waited on the boarders at supper. Steedman is interested in the servant jokes employers liked to tell (though also alienated by them): why did they want to tell them? Servants were ‘good to think with’ (this is a recurrent theme) but what made them prime targets for humour? What was Mrs Thrale doing when she told her daughters comic stories about servants? (Using shared experience, she suggests, to bridge the distance created by their distaste for her second marriage.)

Catching the voices of servants themselves is not easy, though the occasional one rings out. Elizabeth Hands, writing about the disdainful surprise that news of her writing met with, was especially tart:

‘A servant write verses!’ says Madame du Bloom
‘Pray what is the subject – a Mop or a Broom?’
‘He, he, he,’ says Miss Flounce: ‘I suppose we shall see
An Ode on a Dishclout – what else can it be?’

Steedman likes it when servants talk back (the depressed and abject don’t figure prominently here, but we do encounter two young women who, driven to desperation during a long hot summer of grubby toil, killed their employers’ children). She sees her subjects as ‘marvellous girls’, and especially admires the pluck of the young servant who told her employer ‘that he might dress [his baby] himself for she was busy’, and took him to court when he slapped her face. Other voices are muffled – we strain at the keyhole – but echoes of servants’ voices carried into the high courts. Testimony they had given in settlement examinations to establish if they qualified for parish poor relief figured in interparochial disputes; some of these cases became precedents and were enshrined in legal writings, still bearing traces – if faint – of these women’s voices.

In her subtitle, Steedman claims to illuminate ‘the making of modern England’. She takes E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class as a reference point, suggesting that Thompson – influenced by Adam Smith and Marx’s dismissal of domestic service as unproductive labour – thought he could write a history of the working class with the servants left out; her mission is to put them back in. Thompson, like Steedman, constructed his history of society around people’s thoughts about their experiences. But there is a striking contrast between the two studies which Steedman doesn’t emphasise. In Thompson’s account, what changed above all during the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the way in which craftsmen and manufacturing workers thought about themselves: they came to see themselves as a ‘working class’. While Steedman thinks of domestic servants as agents, who not only work, but think, feel and assert themselves, she doesn’t portray them as agents of change. In her account, what changed was chiefly the way employers thought about labour – domestic and other sorts. Is there a story to be told about the changing attitudes and aspirations of servants themselves and the way they shaped change, inside or outside serviced households?

It’s been said of Thompson that he described the making of ‘an’ English working class, but not ‘the’ English working class, for that class was remade in the late 19th century, and remade again, or perhaps unmade, in the late 20th century. One might similarly question whether what Steedman shows us is truly ‘modern England’ in the making, as opposed to ‘a’ modern England. As she observes in her opening chapter, our affluent society has seen a second flowering of domestic service in a form that’s less widely debated, and less regulated by law than in the period she describes. Her study is perhaps more ‘historical’ than her subtitle suggests, and not always in ways we should celebrate.