Jane Austen doesn’t write novels about the servants who tend to her ladies and gentlemen, but she never writes novels without them. References to servants abound, whether they are opening doors, bringing tea, or failing to clean the cutlery properly. While they may not occupy the starring roles in her dramas, the servants are an indispensible supporting cast, providing character references, indicating status, and driving the plot just as effectively as the key players.
Jane Austen’s contemporary readers would have assumed the presence of servants whether she mentioned them or not; they were simply a part of every day life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so no formal allusion to their presence was ever necessary. In What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, John Mullan reminds us that “to her first readers, as habituated to the presence of servants as the novelist, they would not have been invisible at all. Indeed her novels rely on the readers ‘seeing’ these servants in a way that we have forgotten to do” (118). The invisibility of the servants in the novels reflects the general lack of attention servants received from their employers but also the lack of necessity to mention them.
While Austen’s servants add a little drama and spice to a storyline, or even drive the plot, they often appear to be no more than background scenery, just as they would have appeared in real life—present only because a table needed clearing or a fire stoking, certainly not expected to have opinions about the conversations they overheard. Servants in Austen’s novels are not so much present as omnipresent: they blend into the decor as assiduously as chameleons, their camouflage allowing them to astutely observe the gentlefolk they serve. This ability to disappear is surely the key to the unexpected significance of their roles. As Judith Terry puts it in her essay “Seen But Not Heard: Servants in Jane Austen’s England,” they “hover and cluster in Jane’s plots like movie extras, filling the background spaces, with hardly a recognizable face among them,” but they are “absolutely necessary” (104). One of the most useful ways in which servants affect the stories is to serve as litmus indicators of status or character. The way a character speaks to, or about, servants is tremendously telling: perhaps a caring nature is revealed, perhaps an insensitive one; a condition of wealth, or the thriftiness of modest means. Where a servant is misused or treated unjustly, we need not be told that the mistress is dislikable. Unwashed cutlery and frequent arguments with the help speak for themselves as do satisfied housekeepers with nothing but praise for their employers.
Austen’s novels can actually tell us much about both the broader role of servants in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century households and the attitudes many people had towards them. By paying attention to the kinds of things certain characters say about their servants, it’s also possible to gain some insight into Jane Austen’s own attitude to the working class. Her inclusion of certain details or remarks, and the characters into whose mouths she chooses to put these words, hint at her opinions. As John Mullan points out, “The reader is . . . invited to recoil from the character who is unpleasant to his servants” (122). The awful Fanny Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, quickly reveals herself to be a mean and greedy woman when she complains about having to pay annuities to “‘old superannuated servants’” (11). We know that this standpoint is far from Austen’s own, partly because she presents Mrs. John Dashwood as a thoroughly unpleasant character, and it would be odd to attribute her own personal views to such a horrid person, and partly because we know from her own actions that she was not a person who shirked such responsibilities. In Jane Austen, A Life, Claire Tomalin writes that Jane left a bequest of fifty pounds to her cousin Eliza’s old servant and friend, Madame Bigeon, and her daughter, many years after the “slight” association between them could have been ignored, and her sister Cassandra and brother Henry continued to send them money for many years after Jane’s death (279). There was no legal obligation for them to do so, but they did it anyway, indicating a feeling of moral obligation and compassion for people who had worked for their family and who were less well off than themselves. Tomalin also notes that one of Jane’s closest friends was a governess, Anne Sharp; Jane’s last letter to Anne, dated 22 May 1817, ended with the line “Sick or Well, beleive me ever yr attached friend” (Tomalin 263).
Although it’s hard to imagine a Fanny Dashwood type keeping a close friend like Anne Sharp, the much more sympathetic Anne Elliot does have a friend who is now significantly less well off than she once was. Anne does not judge Mrs. Smith based on her lowered social status and is not ashamed to be her friend. Fanny Dashwood’s scrimping meanness towards her erstwhile servants, juxtaposed against Anne Elliot’s friendship with Mrs. Smith, would seem to reflect certain sympathies felt by Austen for some of the laboring and poor people who came into her own life and her distaste for those who would turn their back on them. In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon’s good character is emphasized when he reveals to Elinor that he found his beloved Eliza when “‘regard for a former servant of [his] own, who had since fallen into misfortune, carried [him] to visit him in a spunging-house’” (207). Far from turning his back, the noble Colonel Brandon sought out his former servant, presumably to offer him support, whether moral or fiscal. Austen includes this minor detail as a mark in Brandon’s favor. Once again, we are invited to identify positively with the character showing sympathy for a servant.
Austen knows that what people say about their servants reveals a great deal about their own character, and she uses this insight to develop the characters in her novels. Mansfield Park’s Mrs. Price cannot stop talking about her maid, complaining bitterly at every opportunity that she can’t get her to do a day’s work—typical of a person with little power who attempts to elevate her own status by complaining about others. Alas for Mrs. Price, she lacks the spirit to captain a tight ship, and her complaints have little effect on the help. (Her lack of control over her servants also indicates the caliber of servant she can afford to employ).
One of the differences between Mrs. Price and her sister Mrs. Norris is the way they relate to the workers and servants they encounter. Mrs. Norris needs to be able to look down on anyone who occupies a lower status than she does herself in order to feel superior, and so every servant she encounters is bound to hear some sort of order or direction from her. When Sir Thomas arrives back at Mansfield Park unexpectedly, Mrs. Norris is desperate to boss someone around: “Would Sir Thomas have consented to eat, she might have gone to the house-keeper with troublesome directions, and insulted the footmen with injunctions of dispatch” (180). She spends much of her time finding fault with the servants, remarking on their slowness, laziness, or greed, or making a great display of her thoughtfulness towards them—habits that would have been extremely irksome but would have to be tolerated by any servant who wished to stay employed. Judith Terry points out that it’s “Baddeley, the butler in Mansfield Park, to whom is allotted the singular pleasure of vanquishing Mrs. Norris, when she insists that it cannot be Fanny whom Sir Thomas wishes to see” (109). In this exchange, the butler has the opportunity to oppose Mrs. Norris directly, and he can’t help a “half smile” from showing on his face as he speaks:
“But Baddeley was stout. “‘No, Ma’am, it is Miss Price, I am certain of its being Miss Price.’” And there was a half smile with the words which meant, “I do not think you would answer the purpose at all.” (325).
As Terry points out, “That half smile . . . is the single occasion in the novels on which criticism is levelled by a servant at his betters” (110). When a servant contradicts a superior (and takes apparent pleasure in so doing), and we sympathize with him, it is no accident: Austen wants us to feel this way.
Much about status can be inferred from the number of servants a household employs: the more servants a household can afford to employ, the more impressive; fewer servants mean less money and, by extension, lower status. According to Mullan, “Austen’s readers would have known what a modest number of servants was” (129). They also would have known what it meant to have many. In Emma, it is crass Mrs. Elton’s boast that she doesn’t remember the name of the man who brings their letters—“‘one of our men, I forget his name’”—the intended implication being that she has so many servants that she can’t possibly remember all of them (295). Emma, in contrast, would never make such a remark since she doesn’t need to elevate herself in anyone’s company. The Dashwoods have to make serious cutbacks when they are forced to move to Barton Cottage, and must make do with only three servants—“two maids and a man” (SS 26). And when Mrs. Ferrars disinherits Edward, Mrs. Jennings declares that he will never be able to afford two maids and two men now. He will have to survive with just one “‘stout girl of all works’” (SS 277). As bad as things get for some of the characters in these novels, they can still afford to hire at least one servant. Anne Elliot’s friend Mrs. Smith, described as “living in a very humble way, unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant,” is the only character we meet so poor that she can’t afford to hire anyone (P 152-53). As Judith Terry remarks, “To be without a servant is to be poor indeed” (106).
It wasn’t simply the number of servants a household employed that implied status; the sort of servants a household could afford to hire also had social implications. Obviously, being, like Mrs. Price, able only to afford to pay girls like Rebecca, “the very worst” of the Portsmouth servants—though in her next breath saying that if she got rid of her she would probably only end up with “‘something worse’”—signals that one is clearly not of the upper classes (MP 385). When Mrs. Bennet makes a catty remark about Charlotte Lucas—“‘I fancy she was wanted about the mince pies. For my part, Mr. Bingley, I always keep servants that can do their own work; my daughters are brought up differently’” (PP 44)—she means to let Mr. Bingley know that the Bennet household is of a higher status than that of the Lucas family. Her comment that Mr. Darcy probably has at least two French cooks—“‘even Mr. Darcy acknowledged, that the partridges were remarkably well done; and I suppose he has two or three French cooks at least’” (342)—is a reference to his wealth and possibly also a dig at his pomposity. French chefs were kept only by the wealthiest of households and were considered to be an especially valuable status symbol. As Judith Terry points out, “If a French cook were kept, he was well paid” (107), and Mrs. Bennet would have been aware of that fact. One French chef would be indication enough that the household was a wealthy one. To have “‘two or three at least’” sounds like a sarcastic exaggeration: Mrs. Bennet is impressed by Darcy’s wealth, but he is still out of favor with her.
Often in Austen’s novels, we are told of the arrival of visitors or of meals being eaten, but there is rarely mention of whoever it was that opened the door to these visitors or served the meal. In her novel Longbourn, Jo Baker illustrates this blindness to the servantry as she describes Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam’s arrival at Rosings: “the instant the door was opened, she ceased to exist. . . . [T]he two grand gentlemen filled the doorway, and stepped through it, and moved past her, and did not so much as glance her way—for them the door had simply opened itself” (195). Though Baker’s versions of Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam may be blind to the servants around them, Austen has not forgotten them. She may not dwell on the servants who keep the wheels turning in the homes of her middle class families, but she acknowledges that it is not unusual for maids and other servants to be overlooked. Even kind, attentive, sensible Anne Elliot can’t recall the woman who opened the door to her the day before: “‘Was not it Mrs. Speed, as usual, or the maid? I observed no one in particular’” (P 197).
While the lower orders may not be always noticed by their betters, they are, nonetheless, interested in their goings on, and they do observe and gossip amongst themselves about what they see. John Mullan warns that “the reader who supposes that Austen’s fictional servants form a class of devoted, silent attendants will miss many tricks” (118). It pays to notice this invisible cast. Austen’s novels include servants who aid in elopements, gossip, and betray secrets. The scandal that befalls the Bertram family in Mansfield Park is brought about by the “maidservant of Mrs. Rushworth, senior, [who] threaten[s] alarmingly” and ultimately exposes Maria’s affair with Henry Crawford (450). The woman who opens the door to Anne Elliot in Persuasion is Nurse Rooke, “‘who, by the by, had a great curiosity to see [Anne], and was delighted to be in the way to let [her] in’”―she has just been telling Mrs. Smith that Anne is to marry Mr. Elliot, a distorted piece of gossip that passes freely along the grapevine until Anne hears of it (197). Information passes easily from servant to servant, and from one household to another: secrets are very hard to keep when the servants are everywhere, seeing and hearing everything, and not always keeping their opinions to themselves.
It might not occur to us to imagine every meal taking place in the presence of a butler and serving staff, or to be conscious of the listening housemaid in the drawing room, but this condition would have been normal for Jane Austen’s contemporaries as Elizabeth Bennet’s distress over her mother’s lack of discretion illustrates. That every family drama happens in front of an audience is part of what makes the Bennets’ situation so intolerable. The family does what it can to limit the damage by encouraging Mrs. Bennet to stay in her dressing room because they know she has “not prudence enough to hold her tongue before the servants, while they waited at table” (289). Elizabeth knows how news spreads and in despair asks Jane, “‘Was there a servant belonging to [the house], who did not know the whole story before the end of the day?’” (292). Jane’s reply that “‘to be guarded at such a time, is very difficult’” (292) gives some idea of what it must have been like to have to live out one’s personal dramas in front of a phalanx of servants who may not be as discreet as one would like them to be. As Elizabeth Veisz says, “This fact of household life produced anxieties about the possible circulation of private information among servants and, through them, to other members of the gentry or other middling-rank families. Servants remain as potential spies within the home” (87). In Longbourn, Jo Baker depicts this vulnerability in a scene in which Mr. Bennet reads a letter concerning Lydia and her whereabouts and looks up to see “all the servants gathered there, all witnesses to this disgrace” (271). Baker chooses to portray the servants in her novel as generally loyal to the family, but there is little doubt that this is not their shame but the Bennets’: their silence is by no means guaranteed.
While it’s often unnecessary to mention the presence of servants, at other times Austen reminds readers of just how omnipresent they can be. In Northanger Abbey, it seems as though Catherine Morland can’t get away from them. As Elizabeth Veisz points out, “Catherine’s every move at the abbey seems to be observed, if not interrupted, by a domestic servant” (85). While trying to sneak a look inside an old chest in her bedroom, Catherine is interrupted by Miss Tilney’s maid. When she is upset by her brother’s letter, she hurries up to her room to be by herself, but “the house-maids were busy in it, and she was obliged to come down again” (NA 203). When she awakes in the morning, there is a maid in her room opening the shutters. Northanger Abbey is teeming with servants: “Wherever they went, some pattened girl stopped to curtsey, or some footman in dishabille sneaked off” (184). Catherine is so conscious of them that when she is snooping around in Mrs. Tilney’s room and hears footsteps, she thinks that to “be found there, even by a servant, would be unpleasant” (194). Though we may not think of them often, Catherine is very aware of them. That awareness helps to create a certain mood, a sense of the Abbey being full of eyes—not the ghostly eyes that Catherine may have imagined but actual living eyes of people who see what she is doing, who may judge her, and from whom there doesn’t seem to be any escape.
It has been said that Jane Austen more or less ignores the existence of the working classes in her novels, only barely mentioning them and then swiftly moving on to the more important people, the gentry and aristocracy. In “Place and Society in Jane Austen’s England,” David Herbert argues that “Jane Austen often seems dismissive of lower orders or only portrays them in functional ways. . . . There are instances, however, of compassion for the poor, but these are never accompanied by any detail, . . . no more than passing mentions which barely intrude upon the main plots” (206). This statement is not entirely accurate. Some of the plots have indeed been intruded upon by the actions of the lower orders. Consider Colonel Brandon and Eliza’s failed plan to elope. This failure, and the consequences suffered by Brandon, Eliza, and her daughter, caused by the “‘treachery, or the folly, of [his] cousin’s maid’” (206) are central to the plot of Sense and Sensibility. And the closing chapters would surely have lost some of their emotional punch if Thomas, the man-servant, hadn’t misunderstood which Mr. Ferrars was now married (353-54). In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet seems to reach the tipping point in her feelings for Darcy after hearing his housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, speak so highly of him. We are told that “the praise of an intelligent servant” is “of no trifling nature” (250). Again, in Pride and Prejudice, it is an unfaithful governess whose “connivance and aid” makes possible the planned elopement of Darcy’s younger sister Georgiana—another important element of the plot (202). Although Herbert is right that we don’t hear the servant’s perspective—one reason why Longbourn is such an enjoyable and enlightening read—they are far from absent, and their actions can be as relevant to the plot as any others. The servants are an integral part of the framework. Without them, these stories would be a lot thinner. Once we begin to notice them, they become increasingly visible, their value increasingly apparent, and their importance impossible to ignore.
Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1997.
_____. The Works of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-1969.
Baker, Jo. Longbourn. New York: Knopf, 2013.
Herbert, David. “Place and Society in Jane Austen’s England.” Geography 76.3 (1991): 193-208.
Mullan, John. What Matters In Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Terry, Judith. “Seen But Not Heard: Servants in Jane Austen’s England.” Persuasions 10 (1988): 104-16.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Vintage, 1999.
Veisz, Elizabeth. “Writing the Eighteenth-Century Household: Leapor, Austen, and the Old Feudal Spirits.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 30.1 (2011): 71-91.