Thursday, 17 January 2013

The servant problem

Are you a member of the aristocracy? Probably not, but neither am I. They are interesting though, aren’t they – aristocrats?

Aristocracies may change, but they never disappear. The landed aristocracy are still with us. Still in an important sense landed, they have become much more mobile, no longer tied to a traditional estate and the income it generates.

So personal servants are no longer required in the numbers Edwardian aristocrats were used to. It is almost as if the aristocracy have discovered how to outsource personal service so they don’t have to see or manage their servants directly.

The servants have migrated to factories, offices and the public sector. It is no longer necessary to have them working on one’s estate when a few directorships keep the servant class at bay, but not of course the income they generate.

What has changed is the aristocrat’s concept of income-generating estates. The relationship is now more remote, the estates more profitable, the patterns of ownership considerably less transparent. Servants and tenants still work the land, but in a much wider sense than agriculture, mills and mines.

Thorstein Veblen who coined of the term conspicuous consumption, argued that wasteful activity confers social status. An example he gave was servants expected to suffer restrictions and perform activities of little or no value.

Sound familiar? The endless series of behaviour controls with tighter and tighter restrictions on what we servants are allowed to do or say in public. Aristocrats have servants to deal with these petty annoyances – those they so willingly impose on the rest of society. It is uncanny how old lore on dealing with servants is being applied to modern society. 
  • Servants must not smoke within sight of their betters.
  • Servants must not drink.
  • Male servants are generally seen as less tractable than female.
  • Elderly servants are a burden and an embarrassment to be kept out of sight.
  • The children of servants require no more than a basic education. 

Is it so different today? Of course it is, vastly different, but there are disquieting similarities. As ever, there are social, threads linking today with yesterday. Practices which change their names and their outward appearance, but to the eye of a future historian may not seem so very different.


Mark Wadsworth said...

hehe good stuff. Of course you are right.

A K Haart said...

Mark - thanks. Would we join them if we could?

Anonymous said...

The way the economy is going I should think the nouveau riche could well afford servants (noblesse oblige etc) and the effect might percolate down the social spectrum to the middling classes. The Mail might publish a column on 'servant problems'.

Then there is the influx of Romanians and Bulgarians coming along - should do jolly well as gardeners and tweeny maids for all those public sector retirees.

Further down the pile I should think some enterprising young Englishmen will be getting on their bikes to travail as plongeurs and gartners.

A K Haart said...

Roger - yes, the nouveau and not so nouveau riche may well see Romanians and Bulgarians as potential servants.