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Sunday, 9 October 2016

Servants of Jane Austen's Family


Jane Austen's surviving letters throw some light on the number and nature of the servants employed by her family.

The Austen ladies, like everyone of their class, depended on a small number of labourers and servants for their comforts and had to deal with them - sometimes almost as part of the family. References to them are incorporated into the general fun. When the family was moving to Bath on her father's retirement, Jane wrote: My Mother looks forward with as much certainty as you can do, to our keeping two Maids – my father is the only one not in the secret. – We plan having a steady Cook, & a young giddy Housemaid, with a sedate middle aged Man, who is to undertake the double office of Husband to the former and sweetheart to the latter (Letter 29); meanwhile their present man, John Bond, has had an offer from a Farmer Paine of taking him into his Service whenever he might quit my father's. We learn later that John continued in the employ of the new tenant of Steventon.

In Southampton (January 1807), the Austen ladies were concerned about their reliable servant Jenny, who had not returned from a visit: we have heard nothing of her since her reaching Itchingswell, and can only suppose that she must be detained by illness in somebody or other ... Our dinners have certainly suffered not a little by having only Molly's head and Molly's hands to conduct them; she fries better than she did, but not like Jenny (Letter 49).


From Southampton in December 1808 (Letter 62), Jane passed on a request from Mrs. Anne Hilliard, maidservant at Steventon Rectory, to find employment for her twelve-year-old daughter Hannah. Yesterday I, or rather You had a letter from Nanny Hilliard, the object of which is that she wd be very much obliged to us if we wd get Hannah a place ... She says not a word of what service she wishes for Hannah, nor what Hannah can do – but a Nursery I suppose, or something of that kind, must be the Thing.

In Lyme Regis, a manservant proves to be the delight of our lives ... My Mother's shoes were never so well blacked before, & our plate never looked so clean. – He waits extremely well, is attentive, handy, quick, & quiet, and in short has a great many more than all the cardinal virtues (Letter 39). He is surprisingly literate: He can read, & I must get him some books. Unfortunately he has read the 1st vol. of Robinson Crusoe. We have the Pinckards Newspaper however, which I shall take care to lend him.

Newspapers were flourishing. The sale of daily newspapers had practically doubled between 1753 and 1775. The Daily Universal Register (now The Times) had been founded in 1785 and The Observer in 1791.

When they were preparing to settle in Chawton, Jane writes that they were thinking of having a manservant, and His name shall be Robert, if you please (Letter 61). Eliza, a maidservant at Southampton, was happy to move with the Austen ladies to Chawton, as it took her closer to her mother. However, the manservant Cholles was sacked: We have been obliged to turn away Cholles, he grew so very drunken and negligent, & we have a Man in his place called Thomas (Letter 67). My own dear Thomas, as she describes him in Letter 78, proved an excellent support, even accompanying Jane home from a social occasion on a January evening.