What Do Servants Want?

Bridget Keegan
Creighton University

In her superb monograph, Domestic Affairs: Intimacy, Eroticism, and Violence Between Servants and Masters in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Johns Hopkins, 2009), Kristina Straub argues that the answer to the question—what do servants want?—promises to grant new insights into our understanding of the formation of the early modern family and modern concepts of identity based upon family structure. Straub’s study is an important contribution to the growing body of criticism elaborating the importance of social class—or more accurately to the eighteenth century, rank—in the literature of the period. Long the least studied of the holy trinity of identity politics (race, class, and gender), the critical category of class comes under scrutiny in new and interesting ways. Unlike critics such as Donna Landry, John Goodridge, and William J. Christmas, who focus on laboring-class literary production, Straub takes a thematic focus, analyzing how servants were represented by others.

Straub’s purpose is to “read the eighteenth-century literature on servants as part of this rhetorical ordering of the family, and as integral to the process by which modern theories of identity—particularly class, gender, and sexuality—would come into being” (5). She interrogates a diverse set of texts to examine how they answer the question of who the servant is—but more importantly, what they imagine the servant desires. Straub contends that to understand modern subjectivity we must reinsert an inquiry into the place of the servant within family and social dynamics more generally, pressing on the tensions manifested between affective and contractual relations—between love and work—in depictions of master–servant relationships. She investigates the expected canonical texts, including Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, but she also explores several lesser-known novels and plays as well as sensationalist trial narratives. The book’s chapters proceed chronologically, situating the texts within broader social and political debates such as movement to abolish veils or the tips given to servants by visitors.

The book’s introduction discusses the historical contours of the “servant problem,” as understood in terms of the transformations in the nature of servitude occurring during the course of the century. The most salient changes include the shift from service as part of a “life cycle” (upon marriage, young servants left their position) to a lifetime employment, the appropriation of the concept of “apprenticeship” to new modes of poor relief, and the overall commercialization of eighteenth-century society. In this first chapter, Straub establishes a firm foundation for her claim that the “servant problem” is symptomatic of a wider range of social issues and is ultimately integral to understanding transitions to more fluid notions of identity in the period. The introduction also provides a helpful overview of the argument woven throughout the subsequent chapters, one that defies any reductive summary. Straub’s virtuoso discussion moves seamlessly among several levels of analysis—economic, psychological, cultural, legal, and political.

Chapter 2, “‘In the Posture of Children’: Servants, Family Pedagogy, and Sexuality,” examines the numerous conduct books directed at disciplining servants’ or their masters’ behaviors, including works by Daniel Defoe, Eliza Haywood, and Sarah Trimmer. Through these pedagogical texts, Straub begins to fill in the contours of her argument that “the domestic servant is no mere bit player in the ideological and authoritarian centrality of the family in this fledgling stage of our current capitalist society, but is instead a key factor, one of the primary motives for its modern formation” (26). Straub observes the evident parallels in how the didactic writing constructs children and servants as “objects of instruction” who need to learn their subordinate role in the early modern family. However, the image of servant as child had inherent limitations, as the chapter proceeds to illustrate, particularly with regard to the servant’s sexuality. The equation was effective in accommodating the changes in how apprenticeships were conducted—as a vehicle for relief for the children of the poor (employing them as domestics without teaching them an actual trade as in the traditional model of apprenticeship). But the ability to “infantilize” servants was simultaneously challenged by changes in the nature of service, from being a state young people would leave when they married to a life-long role and condition.

Moreover, the image of servant as child was further troubled by the question of the servant’s sexuality. Straub focuses on the telling contradiction that in the literature of the period: “Domestics, then, are held to the strictest standard of chastity, while simultaneously occupying an intensely sexualized position in the cultural imagination” (35). Their sexuality impedes the servants’ full integration into family life, in ways that differ significantly for male and female servants. Nevertheless, “for both male and female servants, domestic relations, theoretically the venue for their inclusion in the social and disciplinary mechanism of the family, are also the locus of the sexuality that unfits them for their subordinate participation in the increasingly middle-class culture of that family” (36).

Straub first examines the double bind for female servants—who are represented as both “innocent victim” and “sexual entrepreneur”—a dichotomy critical for pivotal works like Pamela, discussed in greater detail in the next chapter. Male servants are granted more agency in their sexuality, even if they are still objectified. In the case of male servants, Straub is particularly interested in the figure she identifies as the “sexy footman” who “enticingly and disturbingly signals new and potentially transformative roles for men in service” (45). He is the subject of chapter 5. Regardless of the servant’s gender, however, Straub observes that “sexuality emerges . . . as the primary language . . . by which the emergent dichotomy between contractual and instrumental relations on the one hand, and affective and emotional relations on the other, is supported and negotiated within the early modern British family” (46). Conduct literature for servants frames the question of the separation of love and work, of “sexuality from the field of labor” (46) that the creative and legal discourses continue to interrogate.

The most significant and most well-known exploration of these issues is Richardson’s Pamela, which is the focus of chapter 3. What Straub adds to the ample body of scholarship on the novel is to read the heroine as “a highly innovative and . . . controversial intervention in representations of the woman servant’s sexuality from that period, and to situate that intervention within the historical emergence of modern domestic femininity” (47). Richardson creates a third alternative for the woman servant—neither victim nor whore, she is “an object of desire and a loving intimate, a sexual magnet and a family member . . . a new erotic between master and maid, a mix of desire and respect between individuals . . . in a moral culture that crosses class and gender lines” (48). The ensuing Pamela controversy shows, however, that the matter was far from settled. Pamela’s literacy, mobility, and claims to moral autonomy remained highly charged issues as Fielding’s Shamela and Haywood’s Anti-Pamela demonstrate.

Straub not only revisits these familiar critiques but looks at the stage and operatic adaptations of the novel, showing how the genre and setting for the consumption of the story make a difference, particularly in theatre spaces wherein both master and servant are in an audience together. She also turns to the historical example of the case of Elizabeth Canning, a teenaged maidservant who went missing for two months and was then found in desperate condition claiming she had been kidnapped and forced into prostitution until she escaped. The intense public debate over Canning and the “truth” of her story— whether she was a victim or a con artist—was, according to Straub, exemplary of the broader debate fueled by the Pamela controversy about “the kinds of sexual identity that were attributable to women of her position in the social order”(67). The case was important historically also because of how it questioned the status of various forms of evidence—both physical and circumstantial. In both the literary and legal texts discussed in this chapter, “the enigma of the woman servant’s sexuality remains unresolved” (79). While Pamela “changed the hermeneutics of how the woman servant is construed, it did not resolve the epistemological question of who or what she is” (81). Exploring the interconnections of sexuality and literacy, Straub shows how these enigmas are “at the heart of both domestic intimacy in the early modern British family and public sphere valuations of ‘the truth’” (82).

Chapter 4 further explores the question of the female servant’s motives and desires through looking at the relationships between maids and mistresses, focusing first on Defoe’s Roxana and how the novel reveals that “love between women is, puzzlingly, associated by Defoe with the violence that early English capitalism does to children, especially the children of the poor”(85). In the works of Defoe and other writers, the role of the mistress is as “mentor” as well as the one who effectively keeps the servant “in the posture of children” (86), adopting a quasi-maternal bond. The prospects for intimacy between mistress and maid, created by their living and working in close proximity, threatened both class hierarchy and family order, as Straub illustrates through an analysis of the love shared by Roxana and her servant Amy. Their relationship is the core of the novel, but it is also one that leads to the novel’s most striking moments of violence, culminating in the murder of Roxana’s daughter, Susan. As in the previous chapter, the literary representations of the troubling dynamics of the mistress and maid dyad are juxtaposed with another well-known trial, that of Elizabeth Brownrigg, a woman of artisan class background who was tried for her appalling abuse of the serving girls in her household, girls who had come under her supervision due to the new system of providing “apprenticeships” for children of the poor. Both Defoe’s novel and the Brownrigg trial contributed to the ongoing controversy regarding the care of impoverished children, even as they also serve as sites of interrogation of female desire outside of heterosexual relationships.

Chapters 5 and 6 turn to the complex role of male servants in the familial relationships that are formative of modern identity, in particular the way that they “illuminat[e] how public-sphere homosociality is anchored in private relations between men within the household” (110). Chapter 5 focuses on footmen in London theatres as well as on the London stage, and the “performances of masculinity” happening in both arenas. Straub begins by telling the fascinating history of the Footman’s Gallery in Drury Lane Theatre, a narrative which illustrates “a moment of crystallization, a point at which social circumstances and the possibilities for imagining menservants’ sexuality formed the conditions that produced a highly visible, repeatable pattern of hetero-normative masculinity, one that interpolates servants even as it rationalizes the diminution of their material power” (112). Straub analyzes how footmen were represented fictionally in operas of the time within the context of the late 1730s riots incited by footmen’s claims to the rights of free access to the upper gallery at Drury Lane. The images of the footman asserted on the stage and in the gallery contribute to the construction of “masculinity that obscured class-based identity while emphasizing trans-gender class” (120). Participating in a debate about what kinds of rights male servants had—and what rights they shared with their masters—many of the theatrical pieces domesticated the “sexy footman” into the character that Straub identifies as “the English husband,” thereby offering another model of successful heterosexual masculinity that provided the illusion of social equality through a shared dominance over women.

The book’s final chapter looks at novelistic exploration of similar themes, focusing on three more canonical works—Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, and William Godwin’s The Adventures of Caleb Williams—as well as recovering a lesser-known anonymous novel, Adventures of a Valet. Thanks to the discussion of the preceding five chapters, Straub is able to read these works in fascinating new ways. In all four texts, the core of the story is the love between men that, except in the case of Caleb Williams, underwrites the male servant’s heterosexuality. Caleb Williams serves as an excellent concluding point in the discussion of master-servant relationships, not only appearing as it does in the revolutionary decade of the 1790s, but also featuring a servant as protagonist and narrator. Straub points out the provocative parallels between Caleb’s story and Pamela’s, based upon the dangerous intimacy both share with their masters. The violence against the manservant seen in all of the novels discussed in this chapter are most profound and most tragic in Godwin’s work, asking again the question of what rights footmen and other menials could claim and what might ensue if they tried to assert those claims. While Godwin is the one “to cut through the heterosexual window-dressing” (176) of the earlier authors, as Straub summarizes all of the male servants in these novels “demonstrate the importance of class distinctions to the historical formation of a universal masculinity predicated on both homosocial attachment and heterosexual dominance. The relationship between master and manservant provided the conditions of intimacy and difference within the early modern family in which this universal took root” (177).

In her conclusion, Straub examines the memoirs of John Macdonald, a male servant whose career—and self-fashioning—as witnessed in his autobiography exemplifies historically many of the themes and topics manifest in the earlier fiction and drama, such as the importance of literacy and of clothing to the changing perceptions of the servant’s identity. Straub deftly illustrates how Macdonald’s story assimilates the full range of footman imagery—“from Swift’s sexually and financially predatory travesty of a good domestic to the manly and attractive Joseph Andrews” (187). Overall, Straub’s work is likely to be of interest to a wide range of scholars, not merely those concerned with literature and social class. Her argument sheds new light upon familiar novels, providing resonant contexts within which to understand them. She introduces the reader to less-familiar texts that are equally fascinating. Her interdisciplinary approach makes this study relevant to historians and literary scholars, as her inquiry reexamines what constitutes the modern family, challenging the idea that it is limited by blood ties only and thereby undermining one of the foundations upon which modern identity is theorized. In this respect, her thoughtful, beautifully written discussion is far-reaching in its impact.