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30 November 2011

Characters Downstairs


As an historical novelist writing about early 19th century aristocrats, servants inevitably play a large role in my books. Particularly valets and ladies' maids, who were intimately involved in their employers' day-to-day lives. I confess I find this a difficult relationship to juggle, and I often worry that my own modern-day sensibilities make me not do it justice. I want to be true to the period. On the other hand, there’s a wide range of behaviors in any era and people are people with the same emotions and compassion. It’s hard to believe there wouldn’t, at least in some cases, be a strong emotional bond between two people who spent as much time together as valets and ladies’ maids and their employers.

When I blogged about this on my own website, the post elicited some fascinating comments. Some pointed out that servants, particularly valets and ladies' maids, can often have interesting insights into the heroes and heroines and their situation. They are close observers of their employers' lives yet at at the same time a little removed. Our own Pam Rosenthal does this brilliantly with the heroine's maid in The Slightest Provocation. The maid is quite uncompromising about her mistress's faults and the heroine, though a very sympathetic person, is often quite blind to her maid's feelings.

Other readers pointed out that in a number of novels the heroes and their valets have served together in the military, and that these shared adventures can create a bond that breaks down class boundaries, at least to a degree. One wonderful example of this type of relationship is Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter, who served together in Word War I. Neither is the sort to verbalize his feelings, but the respect and affection between them is evident. My mom and I had a hero and his valet (his former batman) with a similar sort of relationship (less formal actually) in one of our Anthea Malcolm Regencies, A Touch of Scandal.

Lord Grantham and Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey have also served together in the military. One of the things I love about Downton Abbey is the subtlety and insight with which it handles the relationships between the family and the staff. You see the intolerable nature of the whole system and yet the earl and countess are decent people who genuinely care about their staff. Which makes the fact that it’s an intolerable system all the more interesting.

One of my favorite hero/valet relationships is Lord Damerel and his valet Marston in Georgette Heyer's Venetia. Neither has been in the military, but they have had a lot of adventures together all over the Continent. Their friendship is understated but evident, and to the disapproval of some of the other servants, neither behaves precisely like a typical master and valet. I love the scene at the end where Marston congratulates Damerel and Venetia on their betrothal. Marston is one of my favorite valet characters.

In my own series, the heroine Suzanne and her maid Blanca have a distinctly atypical relationship. Both are playing roles, just as Suzanne is playing a role in her marriage and her position as a diplomatic wife. While Suzanne and Blanca conform to the roles of aristocratic lady and lady's maid in public (including to a large degree in front of Suzanne's husband) in private they are friends. Both women can be honest with each other in ways they can’t even with the men in their lives. Which is fun for me to play with as the author. Suzanne's discomfort with the whole idea of servants (while at the same time she acknowledges the luxuries of the world she lives in) reflects some of my own discomfort.

Suzanne's husband Malcolm and his valet Addison have a much more conventional relationship, yet they too have shared adventures and they too are very fond of each other, though neither would put those feelings into words. Their relationship, as a reader pointed out in the comments on my website, is based “more on action than words.” Both are hemmed in by the roles they were born to (even though Malcolm in many ways disagrees with those roles). And then there’s the fact that neither is good at putting his feelings for anyone into words – including the women they love.

What are some of your favorite valet, lady's maid, and other servant characters in books? Writers, what challenges have you faced in writing about the "downstairs" world?

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12 Comments:

OpenID helenajust said...

My favorite master/valet relationship is PG Woodhouse's Jeeves and Wooster.

The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer has a wonderful selection of valets (as well as grooms, footment, the butler, and housekeeper) and their interaction provides a significant part of the book, paralleling the relationships above stairs. Crimplesham (Vincent's valet) competes with Polyphant (Claud's valet), and then both have to give place to Crimplesham's nephew Ferring when he becomes Hugh's valet. Hugh's groom Joseph has been with him since he was a child, as well as having been his batman, and is Hugh's good friend and confidant.

This novel is a good example of the way in which Heyer demonstrates that each person in that society had his place and knew it, but wasn't unhappy about it when he worked for a good master/mistress, and how they were often part of the family. We have to be careful to avoid importing our modern ideas on servants when reading (and I suppose writing) histrical novels.

1:53 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Tracy, one of the things I enjoy the most about Downtown Abbey are the servants and their relationships with Lord and Lady Grantham. On the one hand, you have O'Brian who is like Mrs. Danvers when it comes to Cora, and then Bates and Lord Grantham. On the flip side with Thomas and the new maid in the 2nd series, one realizes that just how hard it was to be ambitious, to want more than to just be a servant.

Daisy Goodwin sets up a interesting mistress/maid relationship in The American Heiress. Cora Cash's maid Bertha is African-American which would have been unusual back then in the North, considering that the Gilded Age millionaries tended to ape the English in terms of their servants. Seeing England through Bertha's eyes is one of the most fascinating things about the book.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Jeeves & Bertie Wooster are a wonderful example, HelenaJust. I'd forgot about The Unknown Ajax - that book does show a wonderful microcosm of the downstairs world. Heyer does some great things with servants' pov. My first Heyer novel (and still one of my favorites), "The Grand Sophy", opens with the bulter's pov.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

For me, the hardest thing is going against the expectation of many readers that my characters be besties with their servants. Most of my research shows that this was not the norm, and that maids/dressers and valets moved around quite a bit and were often called upon as witnesses in crim con trials. Perhaps it’s because I concentrate on the wilder set of people that I often see the relationship between master and servant as acrimonious and even adversarial?

That is not to say that no one was ever close with a servant, but I do think of them more as “office acquaintances” in modern terms than as “friends”. And I can assure you that some readers hate this, LOL! I also don’t bring in servant characters that the story doesn’t need. For example, I assume that most of my heroes have valets, but unless he plays a role in the story outside of valeting, I don’t bring him up.

I would love to write a book that really featured a servant in a necessary role though (as with Bunter or Marston or Addison. One of my favorites has always been the manservant in Heyer’s THE MASQUERADERS. He’s up for whatever that wild family dishes out and he’s integral to the plot.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I'm really excited to see the 2nd Downton Abbey series, Elizabeth! The characters their and their relationships are so wonderfully rich and complex. And The American Heiress sounds fascinating!

8:32 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

"Office acquaintances" is a good way to think about it, Isobel. I've often thought that myself, and I suspect as today with people who work together, there was a range from casual acquaintances to deeper relationships, especially when the valets and ladies' maids worked for their employer longer. Which is much the case with office mates. And as with office acquaintances there'd certainly be cases where the relationship was acrimonious or adversarial - though it would be easier for the master or mistress to fire the servant than it is in a lot of office situations.

The Masqueraders is another great example of how Heyer uses servant characters.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Jeeves and Wooster immediately came to mind. And I grew up watching the original "Upstairs, Downstairs," and loved the interplay not only between the the servants and the family, but among the servants themselves: the older generation who'd been in service forever and had no other ambitions, and the younger ones like Sarah, who yearned to break out.

Back to literature, Shakespeare (and the Roman comedies that led to Commedia dell Arte and Goldoni) are filled with master-servant relationships, where, inevitably, the servant is the smarter of the two -- from COMEDY OF ERRORS to KING LEAR (which also brings us right back to the relationship between Jeeves and Wooster).

I find that the servant often steals the show. In my own novel, BY A LADY, the little serving maid Mary, became such an endearing character to me as I was writing the book that I found her to be a little scene stealer. She was breaking my heart, even though it was my own book.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I grew up on "Upstairs, Downstairs" too, Leslie, and loved the character interaction. It's fascinating how the expectations of the servants for their options in life changed with the changing world through World War I and the 20s.

And the Shakespeare examples are great. You also have a number of heroines who are friends with their maids (i.e., Portia and Nerissa). Or "12th Night" where Sir Toby hangs out belowstairs.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Olivia and Maria in 12th Night are on the same page, literally, too. They're in cahoots with each other. and then of course there's Juliet and her Nurse.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Yes, all those characters have great scenes together with lots of give and take and obvious affection.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

There was a real difference between country servants and London servants too. At your seat, your servants were likely to mostly be locals and relations of your other servants, making dismissal much harder and likely creating a greater sense of obligation on both sides. London servants were often hired only for the season and then dismissed, or they were hired away by someone with a fatter purse who lived in Town for a greater period of time and could offer job security.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's a great point, Isobel, and something interesting for writers to play with in establishing servant characters.

7:32 PM  

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