Servants as Surveillance

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Transcript of Servants as Surveillance

  • 7/27/2019 Servants as Surveillance


    The Kitchen Police: Servant Surveillance and Middle-Class TransgressionAuthor(s): Brian W. McCuskeySource: Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 28, No. 2 (2000), pp. 359-375Published by: Cambridge University PressStable URL:

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  • 7/27/2019 Servants as Surveillance


    Victorian Literature and Culture (2000), 359-375. Printed in the United States of America.Copyright ? 2000 Cambridge University Press. 1060-1503/00 $9.50


    By Brian W. McCuskey

    I. Privileged SpiesToward the end of Lady Audley's Secret (1862), the most infamous femme fatale of theVictorian novel retires to her dressing room after a long day of committing arson andattempting murder. Shamming a headache, Lady Audley sends her maid from the room.The narrator explains her motive:

    Amongst all privileged spies, a lady's-maid has the highest privileges. It is she who bathesLady Theresa's eyes with eau-de-cologne after her ladyship's quarrel with the colonel; it isshe who administers sal-volatile to Miss Fanny when Count Beaudesert, of the Blues, hasjilted her. She has a hundred methods for the finding out of her mistress's secrets. She knowsby themanner inwhich her victim jerks her head from under the hair-brush, or chafes at thegentlest administration of the comb, what hidden tortures are racking her breast ? whatsecret perplexities are bewildering her brain. That well-bred attendant knows how to interpret the most obscure diagnoses of all mental diseases that can afflict her mistress; she knowswhen the ivory complexion is bought and paid for? when the pearly teeth are foreignsubstances fashioned by the dentist ? when the glossy plaits

    are the relics of the dead, ratherthan the property of the living; and she knows other and more sacred secrets than these.(Braddon 336; v. 3, ch. 2)

    Lady Audley shares with her Victorian readers amounting anxiety about the eyes and earsof servants in the home. While Lady Audley's secrets are exceptionally incriminating,nineteenth-century periodicals and household manuals warn even the most genteel householders to beware the spying and eavesdropping of servants. Privacy, one of the cornerstones of Victorian domestic ideology, remains under siege as long as the family remainsunder surveillance. "Everything that you do, and very much that you say at home,"cautions an 1853 North British Review article, "is related in your servants' families, and bythem retailed to other gossips in the neighborhood, with appropriate exaggerations, untilyou almost feel that you might as well live in a glass house or a whispering gallery" (Kaye97). Through servants' curiosity and gossip, the private affairs of the family become public


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  • 7/27/2019 Servants as Surveillance



    knowledge: the master's business interests are disclosed, the mistress's confidences broadcast, the daughter's flirtations and son's debts exposed.To counter such invasions of privacy, household manuals written for servants exhortvalets and chambermaids to hold the secrets of the family sacred ? or, preferably, toignore and forget those secrets altogether. James Williams, author of The Footman'sGuide (1847), advises that there are "times and seasons in all establishments, particularlyin a numerous family, when the domestics are bound by every consideration of honestyand honour to act with the greatest circumspection and prudence; when they must notobserve what they cannot but see, must not notice what they cannot but hear, and when,although present, they must consider themselves absent" (23). Ironically, in warningservants what not to observe, the manuals acknowledge and articulate precisely the guiltysecrets ? alcoholism, illness, adultery, domestic violence ? that middle-class householders were so determined to suppress. The Lady's Maid (1877), for example, broaches thevery problems that it asks its servant readers to deny: "If your master should be unfortunate in his temper, or in any of his habits, ? if you should hear harsh words, or see yourmistress in distress, you are bound in honour to be as silent upon the whole matter,whether you are so desired or not, as if itwere a secret committed to your keeping" (32).Servant manuals and advice books thus inadvertently shine a bright light into the darkclosets of the Victorian middle-class home.

    Given the association of servants and secrets in these instructive texts, it comes as nosurprise that so many nineteenth-century novels feature servants prominently as snoops,voyeurs, and blackmailers. Anthea Trodd has argued that "the householder's outragedsense of routine invasion of privacy by his domestic staff expressed itself in the productionof crime plots in which servants, so often inconspicuous in other kinds of fiction, routinelyplay highly visible and sinister roles" (46). Trodd catalogues an impressive rogue's galleryof servants ? including Dickens's Littimer and Thackeray's Morgan ? whose prying eyesand loose tongues compromise the secrets and security of the middle-class home. Servants,in Trodd's view, constitute an "alien community under [the householder's] roof, whomight aggressively manipulate their knowledge of the family for their own ends, or at leastinvoluntarily expose and misrepresent it to the outside world" (53). Taking her cue fromVictorian writers who complain about a crisis of privacy in the home, Trodd contends thatservant spying is a transgression that must be punished or at least corrected in the fictionif the middle-class reader's own anxieties are to be soothed. Her analysis thereforeassumes that surveillance below stairs necessarily subverts middle-class authority above.

    However, a blunt opposition between spying servants and spied-upon family cannotcomprehend the complex negotiations of privacy and publicity in the Victorian home. Forone thing, as Bruce Robbins has noted, surveillance in the home moved in both directionsacross the employer-servant relation, as the middle-class family's "fear of being observedemerged together with a new burden of observing" (109). The domestic manuals recommend diverse strategies of keeping an eye on servants below stairs; they advise employersto monitor any visitors to the servants' hall, to double-check the kitchen accounts, toenforce strict curfews, and so on. Furthermore, surveillance also cuts both ways across thefigure of the servant itself: far from simply violating the privacy of the home, servantsurveillance often actually guaranteed privacy. Leonore Davidoff explains, "The hall, andin larger establishments, special anterooms, were used to 'hold' the caller in limbo whilethe servant went to find the required member of the family in the private regions of the

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  • 7/27/2019 Servants as Surveillance


    Servant Surveillance and Middle-Class Transgression 361

    house," thus protecting the family "by space and time lapse from initial contacts withoutsiders" (87). Servants therefore acted as a buffer between the family and the street,helping the family to screen visitors and to stall intruders.Even once a visitor had been fortunate enough to pass this initial screening, householders still expected their servants to supervise visitors within the home. Emily AndrewsPatmore (writing in 1859 as "Mrs. Mary Motherly") offers this advice to young housemaids: "Should the person be ever so well dressed, and yet ask only for 'your mistress,' or'the lady of the house,' do not ask such a one into a room where there is anything valuable"(71). Servants were expected to guard vigilantly not only the silver and plate, but also thephysical safety and emotional well-being of the mistress. In some cases, the manservantassumed the place of the absent husband as chaperone. James Williams instructs thenovice footman: