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The Rise and Fall of the Literary Servant

Same Function, Changing Times

Same Function, Changing Times

The Roles of the Servant in Literature

If we mark modern literature as beginning in the early seventeenth century, we can find the first notable literary servant in Don Quixote, the novel by Don Miguel de Cervantes. In creating Sancho Panza, the companion of the eponymous hero, Cervantes established that literary staple, the sidekick. The sidekick provides the main character with an audience through which to express his feelings, opinions and plans of action. The sidekick has the privilege to answer back to the main character, to agree or disagree with him. In the novel, Panza questions the more high-flown plans of Quixote and tries to invest him with reality. Following Don Quixote, the servant all but vanishes from literary works until the early nineteenth century. Aside from occasional references to maids, cooks and butlers, the servant is almost absent from the novels of Jane Austen and her contemporaries. However, as the nineteenth century progressed, writers began to place servants once more at the centre of the narrative. By the end of the 1800's, the servant occupied identifiable roles; the sidekick, the anchor, the agent and the shadow.

The Agent

By nineteenth century, it was clear that tastes in literary heroes and heroines were changing. In 1837, Charles Dickens began writing his Pickwick Papers in episodic form for the publisher, Chapman and Hall. Initially, sales of the serialised story, about Pickwick and his three companions travelling about the shires, were slow. The publishers were about to call a halt to the project when Dickens provided Pickwick with a companion, his manservant, Samuel Weller. Sales shot up and the project was saved. The message was clear to the publishers: with growing literacy among the masses, readers wanted to enter into adventures about people from the same backgrounds as themselves. What is more, Weller takes an active part in the story, and goes on a quest to find Arabella Allen, the beloved of Pickwick's friend, Mr Winkle. In spite of his quick wit and intelligence, Sam Weller is rooted in the serving classes and though he is married by the end of the novel, his social status does not change.

In 1847, Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre, the story of a poor young woman who becomes a governess. With the help of hard work, intelligence and education, she ends her story by marrying a wealthy man. The eponymous heroine takes on the role of agent, providing a centre of gravity through the narrative. Jane is, by turns, a despised poor relative, an eager school pupil, an ardent young governess, the lover of the saturnine Mr Rochester, an object of desire by the evangelising John Rivers and finally, a happy young wife. She influences the actions of every character in the book with whom she has contact and retains her own personality, refusing to let the bullies in the story, the spiteful John Reed and his mother, the cruel Mr Brocklehurst, the moralising John Rivers and even, Mr Rochester himself, crush her spirit. She behaves with humility at all times, befriending Thornfield housekeeper Mrs Fairfax, and yet she is socially polished enough to sit with the elevated friends of Mr Rochester.

The Anchor

In 1868, Wilkie Collins published The Moonstone in epistolatory form, that is, a novel in a series of disjointed accounts by various characters of the events in the story. Manservant Gabriel Betteredge's account is at the outset of the narrative and it sets the scene of the mystery of the missing diamond.. He introduces all of the chief characters, explains his involvement with them and tells us what they do. His occupation as a butler and then a bailiff is rooted in class loyalty. He describes the physical comforts that have accrued to him throughout his years of loyal service to the family. Yet, he is detached enough to be scathing of the way that the landed classes squander their time: “Gentlefolk in general have a very awkward rock ahead in life – the rock of their own idleness”. It is clear that Gabriel is an anchor. He does not interact with the main characters of the book, let alone influence the narrative course of events. His character simply observes the antics of the other people about him. After about two hundred pages, Gabriel's account of events ends, and more socially mobile characters take up and conclude the story.

The Elevated Servant

Though Collins executes the anchor device well, his narrative demonstrates its limitations. Gabriel Betteredge simply does not have the social mobility to observe the more urbane characters in the narrative. In 1853, Collins's friend, Charles Dickens, published Bleak House. The central character is Esther Summerson, an orphaned young woman who has grown up, provided for by a mysterious benefactor. When she is twenty-one, Esther meets him, John Jarndyce, and two other young people. On arrival at his home, the eponymous Bleak House, a servant thrusts a bunch of keys into Esther's hands, making her the housekeeper. Anxious to pay back her benefactor, Esther complies diligently. However, unlike the majority of Victorian servants, Esther eats at table with Jarndyce and the other young people, Richard and Ada, socially elevated because of their private means. She travels to London and to the countryside with John, Richard and Ada, and sees life in all different shades. Esther witnesses the wealth of the Dedlock family and the bitter poverty of the brickmakers. She rejoices in the better fortunes of her companions and endures heartbreak on meeting her mother and discovering that Lady Dedlock and she must spend their lives apart. Esther almost dies of smallpox, yet she survives and finds her true love, marriage and happiness. In every aspect, Esther is an agent, but her gender limits her to the Victorian domestic sphere. Moreover, Esther (together with Sancho Panzo, Jane Eyre and Gabriel Betteredge) provide ripostes to other characters in their narratives, their "good" behaviour in contrast to the greed and hypocrisy about them. In the early twentieth century, author Daphne du Maurier succeeded in creating a servant whose behaviour shadowed that of her evil mistress.

The Shadow Servant

In Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca, the wealthy Maxim de Winter marries a naïve young woman whom he has encountered in the south of France, working as a companion to an old lady. The new Mrs de Winter is actually the narrator of the story and she recounts how her husband takes her to live in his country house, Manderly. There, she encounters housekeeper Mrs Danvers, who had been devoted to De Winter’s previous wife, Rebecca. A year earlier, Rebecca had died in a boating accident. Mrs Danvers takes every opportunity to remind the narrator how beautiful and vivacious Rebecca had been, and of how she – the new Mrs de Winter – will never live up to her reputation. As the plot unfolds, Mrs Danvers makes it clear that she wants the new bride out of the house and even suggests that Mrs de Winter might kill herself. This cruel act of Mrs Danvers presages what we discover about Rebecca, that is, underneath the lovely and sophisticated surface, she was a spiteful and sadistic woman whose marriage was merely a cover for the many affairs that she had. In the narrative, Mrs Danvers becomes a surrogate of her former mistress, her taunting behaviour and eventual destruction of Manderly an echo of Rebecca’s destruction of herself.

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The Demise of the Serving Class

By now, times - and the master and servant relationship - were changing. Du Maurier published her novel in 1938, and in the same decade, author PG Wodehouse paired Jeeves the valet with his master, the hare-brained, upper class Bertie Wooster in a series of books. Their relationship echoes the Quixote/Sancho Panza trope of three centuries earlier. By the 1930's, the master/valet situation had become anachronistic. With the rise in wages and the expansion of the jobs’ market, servants had become scarce and expensive. The majority of middle-class households were free of paid help and the master/valet relationship was confined to the upper classes. Bertie Wooster and his social bumblings have become a metaphor for an outmoded way of life, one that was doomed to extinction. This extinguishing of a literary trope has provided the groundwork for the relentless rise of another literary genre. We find its stirrings in the novel, Bleak House.

The Agents of the Future

I have already mentioned that Esther Summerson lived in a society in which women had little autonomy. Mid-way through the novel, the author introduces the character of Inspector Bucket, the genesis of every detective in fiction, ever since. Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the earliest authors to realise that the detective was the new servant. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson have become the grandfathers of fictional detectives so numerous that to try to list them here would be futile. However, it is possible to list what fictional detectives have in common; physical fitness and good education, mental agility and social adaptability The detective moves at will through all levels of society, questioning values and witnessing social atrophy. The fictional detective is all at once, an anchor and a detached observer, a beneficial agent and occasionally, is obliged to question conventional morality. At present, it looks as though the fictional detective will be around forever, but who knows?


Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

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