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Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Servants in Jane Austen's novels

Even though more than a hundred servants are mentioned in Jane Austen's novels, they never play major roles and the heroines never actively manage them.

Jane Austen approved of efforts to relieve the poor and oppressed. Witness her own life as well as the charitable acts of fictitious characters of whom she approved. Charity is always commended, however limited its effect. Whatever else Fanny Price may think of Henry Crawford, she is impressed when he helps the needy on his estate in Norfolk. To be the friend of the poor and oppressed! Nothing could more grateful to her......

Even so, Jane Austen observed the convention that working classes did not appear in novels other than as 'low' comic butts. With the doubtful exception of Rebecca in Mansfield Park, they have no personalities, only names and functions – Baddeley, Sir Thomas' butler; and Mrs. Chapman, Lady Bertram's woman; Patty, maid-of-all-work at Miss Bates's; Hill the housekeeper at Mrs. Bennet's; and Wright at Mrs. Elton's. There are some even without names – 'the maid' who curled Emma's hair, or lit Catherine's fire, or had the third seat in General Tilney's coach.

Servants in the novels say little (except when illustrating the coarseness of the Price household in Portsmouth), but we are aware of their presence, often as inhibitors of conversation. In Mansfield Park, the appearance of Baddeley with the tea things protects Fanny from further importuning by Henry Crawford. Earlier, on the second floor of Mansfield Park, the appearance of a housemaid prevented any further conversation just when Edmund has started to seek Fanny’s help in sorting out his confused feelings for Mary Crawford.

Only one servant is allowed a speech which precipitates a development: Thomas in Sense and Sensibility has a brief moment of fame: he reports having seen the married Lucy Steele (now Mrs. Ferrars) in Exeter. His speech is characterized by grammatical errors, especially with verbs, and a generally deferential tone.

However, social differences were breaking down. More tradespeople were becoming wealthy. Officers in the army and navy made considerable fortunes. Darcy is typical of those who eventually accept people on their merit. He learns to value the Gardiners as friends.