One of the things I love about Jane Austen is that nothing is wasted in her books. Even the tiniest of details is used to convey information of some kind or as a plot device. This includes the servants, who are ubiquitous in her novels. Let’s look at the role they play in a bit more detail.
Servants as a Mark of Gentility
In Jane Austen’s novels, we meet characters in very different financial circumstances, but even most of those bordering on poverty manage to have servants of some kind. In Emma, Mrs and Miss Bates have a tiny income, but it is enough to pay for a servant, Patty. In Mansfield Park, the impoverished Mr and Mrs Price employ an “upper servant,” Rebecca, and “an attendant girl”, Sally, described as of “inferior appearance.”
Not having at least a girl to help around the house is the Regency equivalent of near-destitution. In fact, only Mrs Smith, as a “poor, infirm, helpless widow” in Persuasion, is “unable to afford herself the comfort of a servant,” which shows the extent of her desperation.
Servants as Proof of Personal Wealth
No surprise here: the larger the fortune of the master, the more numerous the servants working for him or her. Stately homes such as Rosings, Pemberley or Mansfield Park came with a small army of servants to keep them ticking like clockwork. However, in Longbourn, the Bennets have to make do with five servants (butler, cook, housekeeper, maid and scullery maid) for a household of seven.
Likewise, in Austen’s novels, a decrease in the number of servants indicates a change in financial circumstances. In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwoods have to move to a cottage in Devonshire with only “two maids and a man” to attend to them. In Persuasion, the Elliots move to Bath in part because they will need to keep fewer servants.
Servants as a Source of Information about the Household
Servants knew a lot about the families they worked for. Anything done or discussed in the house was at risk of being talked about. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Reynolds, the housekeeper, gives plenty of information about Mr Darcy and Georgiana, and “had evidently great pleasure in talking of her master and his sister.” Mrs Reynolds’ praise contributes to changing Elizabeth’s perception of Darcy.
The characters in Jane Austen’s stories know that one needs to be careful with what one discusses in front of the help, although this can be difficult at times. Also in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth returns to Longbourn from Hunsford, she is in despair when she realises that all the servants must know about Lydia’s escape with Wickham. She knows the town gossips will soon know all about it.
Servants as a Reflection on Their Masters
Whenever Austen shows us how someone treats a servant, she is also conveying a wealth of information about that character. Take Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, when she is discussing annuities with her husband. Annuities were similar to pensions and were paid by masters to reward the loyalty of former servants unable to work because of advanced age or poor health. Fanny makes it clear that she dislikes annuities very much:
“An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it. (…) My mother was clogged with the payment of three to old superannuated servants by my father’s will, and it is amazing how disagreeable she found it. (…) My mother was quite sick of it.”
Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 2
In contrast, Colonel Brandon’s kindness and sense of duty towards his dependents are shown through how he acts towards a previous servant who has “fallen into misfortune”. His concern leads him to “visit him in a spunging-house, where he was confined for debt.” There, Brandon finds Eliza, his disgraced sister-in-law and former love, who is dying of consumption, which brings me nicely to my last point.
Servants as a Plot Device
In some occasions, Austen uses servants to advance or alter the course of the story or even deliver the odd red herring. In Sense and Sensibility, a servant unwittingly causes a fair deal of despair amongst his mistresses when he tells the Dashwood ladies that Mr Ferrars is married. As well as sowing confusion, the man’s words show Lucy Steele’s maliciousness when the situation is cleared up soon afterwards.
In Mansfield Park, when the family visits Sotherton, Mrs Norris behaviour has severe implications. She acts selfishly, associating with the servants to obtain some cream cheese and pheasants’ eggs. As a result, Julia Bertram is forced to keep Mrs Rushworth’s company, Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram are left unchaperoned for quite some time, and we all know what happens next.
The Grey Areas
Austen also shows us some grey areas in the relationships between master or mistress and servant. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s position in the Bertram household is unclear. She is quiet and accepting of her fluctuating status, but how would someone with more spirit react to the way she is sometimes treated by the Bertrams and Aunt Norris in particular?
Enter Susan Price, Fanny’s spirited little sister, who eventually replaces her as Lady Bertram’s companion. Is she to be considered a relative, or little more than a servant? In Miss Price’s Decision, the implications of this question are apparent when she goes into society in London and Bath, where her position is challenged by both her superiors and her inferiors.
Susan, like all members of Regency society, wants to know her place in the world. Will she find it?
Miss Price’s Decision is available in the leading online bookstores.
Can you think of other examples of the role of servants in Jane Austen’s novels?