Story type: Essay
“I am glad to see, Mrs. Wilkins,” I said, “that the Women’s Domestic Guild of America has succeeded in solving the servant girl problem– none too soon, one might almost say.”
“Ah,” said Mrs. Wilkins, as she took the cover off the bacon and gave an extra polish to the mustard-pot with her apron, “they are clever people over there; leastways, so I’ve always ‘eard.”
“This, their latest, Mrs. Wilkins,” I said, “I am inclined to regard as their greatest triumph. My hope is that the Women’s Domestic Guild of America, when it has finished with the United States and Canada, will, perhaps, see its way to establishing a branch in England. There are ladies of my acquaintance who would welcome, I feel sure, any really satisfactory solution of the problem.”
“Well, good luck to it, is all I say,” responded Mrs. Wilkins, “and if it makes all the gals contented with their places, and all the mistresses satisfied with what they’ve got and ‘appy in their minds, why, God bless it, say I.”
“The mistake hitherto,” I said, “from what I read, appears to have been that the right servant was not sent to the right place. What the Women’s Domestic Guild of America proposes to do is to find the right servant for the right place. You see the difference, don’t you, Mrs. Wilkins?”
“That’s the secret,” agreed Mrs. Wilkins. They don’t anticipate any difficulty in getting the right sort of gal, I take it?”
“I gather not, Mrs. Wilkins,” I replied.
Mrs. Wilkins is of a pessimistic turn of mind.
“I am not so sure about it,” she said; “the Almighty don’t seem to ‘ave made too many of that sort. Unless these American ladies that you speak of are going to start a factory of their own. I am afraid there is disappointment in store for them.”
“Don’t throw cold water on the idea before it is fairly started, Mrs. Wilkins,” I pleaded.
“Well, sir,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “I ‘ave been a gal myself in service; and in my time I’ve ‘ad a few mistresses of my own, and I’ve ‘eard a good deal about others. There are ladies and ladies, as you may know, sir, and some of them, if they aren’t exactly angels, are about as near to it as can be looked for in this climate, and they are not the ones that do most of the complaining. But, as for the average mistress–well it ain’t a gal she wants, it’s a plaster image, without any natural innards–a sort of thing as ain’t ‘uman, and ain’t to be found in ‘uman nature. And then she’d grumble at it, if it didn’t ‘appen to be able to be in two places at once.”
“You fear that the standard for that ‘right girl’ is likely to be set a trifle too high Mrs. Wilkins,” I suggested.
“That ‘right gal,’ according to the notions of some of ’em,” retorted Mrs. Wilkins, “‘er place ain’t down ‘ere among us mere mortals; ‘er place is up in ‘eaven with a ‘arp and a golden crown. There’s my niece, Emma, I don’t say she is a saint, but a better ‘earted, ‘arder working gal, at twenty pounds a year, you don’t expect to find, unless maybe you’re a natural born fool that can’t ‘elp yourself. She wanted a place. She ‘ad been ‘ome for nearly six months, nursing ‘er old father, as ‘ad been down all the winter with rheumatic fever; and ‘ard-put to it she was for a few clothes. You ‘ear ’em talk about gals as insists on an hour a day for practising the piano, and the right to invite their young man to spend the evening with them in the drawing-room. Perhaps it is meant to be funny; I ain’t come across that type of gal myself, outside the pictures in the comic papers; and I’ll never believe, till I see ‘er myself, that anybody else ‘as. They sent ‘er from the registry office to a lady at Clapton.
“‘I ‘ope you are good at getting up early in the morning?’ says the lady, ‘I like a gal as rises cheerfully to ‘er work.’
“‘Well, ma’am,’ says Emma, ‘I can’t say as I’ve got a passion for it. But it’s one of those things that ‘as to be done, and I guess I’ve learnt the trick.’
“‘I’m a great believer in early rising,’ says my lady; ‘in the morning, one is always fresher for one’s work; my ‘usband and the younger children breakfast at ‘arf past seven; myself and my eldest daughter ‘ave our breakfest in bed at eight.’
‘That’ll be all right, ma’am,’ says Emma.
“‘And I ‘ope,’ says the lady, ‘you are of an amiable disposition. Some gals when you ring the bell come up looking so disagreeable, one almost wishes one didn’t want them.’
“‘Well, it ain’t a thing,’ explains Emma, ‘as makes you want to burst out laughing, ‘earing the bell go off for the twentieth time, and ‘aving suddenly to put down your work at, perhaps, a critical moment. Some ladies don’t seem able to reach down their ‘at for themselves.’
“‘I ‘ope you are not impertinent,’ says the lady; ‘if there’s one thing that I object to in a servant it is impertinence.’
“‘We none of us like being answered back,’ says Emma, ‘more particularly when we are in the wrong. But I know my place ma’am, and I shan’t give you no lip. It always leads to less trouble, I find, keeping your mouth shut, rather than opening it.’
“‘Are you fond of children,’ asks my lady.
“‘It depends upon the children,’ says Emma; ‘there are some I ‘ave ‘ad to do with as made the day seem pleasanter, and I’ve come across others as I could ‘ave parted from at any moment without tears.’
“‘I like a gal,’ says the lady, ‘who is naturally fond of children, it shows a good character.’
“‘How many of them are there?’ says Emma.
“‘Four of them,’ answers my lady, ‘but you won’t ‘ave much to do except with the two youngest. The great thing with young children is to surround them with good examples. Are you a Christian?’ asks my lady.
“‘That’s what I’m generally called,’ says Emma.
“‘Every other Sunday evening out is my rule,’ says the lady, ‘but of course I shall expect you to go to church.’
“‘Do you mean in my time, ma’am,’ says Emma, ‘or in yours.’
“‘I mean on your evening of course,’ says my lady. ”Ow else could you go?’
“‘Well, ma’am,’ says Emma, ‘I like to see my people now and then.’
“‘There are better things,’ says my lady, ‘than seeing what you call your people, and I should not care to take a girl into my ‘ouse as put ‘er pleasure before ‘er religion. You are not engaged, I ‘ope?’
“‘Walking out, ma’am, do you mean?’ says Emma. ‘No, ma’am, there is nobody I’ve got in my mind–not just at present.’
“‘I never will take a gal,’ explains my lady, ‘who is engaged. I find it distracts ‘er attention from ‘er work. And I must insist if you come to me,’ continues my lady, ‘that you get yourself another ‘at and jacket. If there is one thing I object to in a servant it is a disposition to cheap finery.’
“‘Er own daughter was sitting there beside ‘er with ‘alf a dozen silver bangles on ‘er wrist, and a sort of thing ‘anging around ‘er neck, as, ‘ad it been real, would ‘ave been worth perhaps a thousand pounds. But Emma wanted a job, so she kept ‘er thoughts to ‘erself.
“‘I can put these things by and get myself something else,’ she says, ‘if you don’t mind, ma’am, advancing me something out of my first three months’ wages. I’m afraid my account at the bank is a bit overdrawn.’
“The lady whispered something to ‘er daughter. ‘I am afraid, on thinking it over,’ she says, ‘that you won’t suit, after all. You don’t look serious enough. I feel sure, from the way you do your ‘air,’ says my lady, ‘there’s a frivolous side to your nature.’
“So Emma came away, and was not, on the whole, too sorry.”
“But do they get servants to come to them, this type of mistress, do you think, Mrs. Wilkins?” I asked.
“They get them all right,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “and if it’s a decent gal, it makes a bad gal of ‘er, that ever afterwards looks upon every mistress as ‘er enemy, and acts accordingly. And if she ain’t a naturally good gal, it makes ‘er worse, and then you ‘ear what awful things gals are. I don’t say it’s an easy problem,” continued Mrs. Wilkins, “it’s just like marriages. The good mistress gets ‘old of the bad servant, and the bad mistress, as often as not is lucky.”
“But how is it,” I argued, “that in hotels, for instance, the service is excellent, and the girls, generally speaking, seem contented? The work is hard, and the wages not much better, if as good.”
“Ah,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “you ‘ave ‘it the right nail on the ‘ead, there, sir. They go into the ‘otels and work like niggers, knowing that if a single thing goes wrong they will be bully-ragged and sworn at till they don’t know whether they are standing on their ‘ead or their ‘eels. But they ‘ave their hours; the gal knows when ‘er work is done, and when the clock strikes she is a ‘uman being once again. She ‘as got that moment to look forward to all day, and it keeps ‘er going. In private service there’s no moment in the day to ‘ope for. If the lady is reasonable she ain’t overworked; but no ‘ow can she ever feel she is her own mistress, free to come and go, to wear ‘er bit of finery, to ‘ave ‘er bit of fun. She works from six in the morning till eleven or twelve at night, and then she only goes to bed provided she ain’t wanted. She don’t belong to ‘erself at all; it’s that that irritates them.”
“I see your point, Mrs. Wilkins,” I said, “and, of course, in a house where two or three servants were kept some such plan might easily be arranged. The girl who commenced work at six o’clock in the morning might consider herself free at six o’clock in the evening. What she did with herself, how she dressed herself in her own time, would be her affair. What church the clerk or the workman belongs to, what company he keeps, is no concern of the firm. In such matters, mistresses, I am inclined to think, saddle themselves with a responsibility for which there is no need. If the girl behaves herself while in the house, and does her work, there the contract ends. The mistress who thinks it her duty to combine the roles of employer and of maiden aunt is naturally resented. The next month the girl might change her hours from twelve to twelve, and her fellow-servant could enjoy the six a.m. to six p.m. shift. But how do you propose to deal, Mrs. Wilkins, with the smaller menage, that employs only one servant?”
“Well, sir,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “it seems to me simple enough. Ladies talk pretty about the dignity of labour, and are never tired of pointing out why gals should prefer domestic service to all other kinds of work. Suppose they practise what they preach. In the ‘ouse, where there’s only the master and the mistress, and, say a couple of small children, let the lady take her turn. After all, it’s only her duty, same as the office or the shop is the man’s. Where, on the other ‘and, there are biggish boys and gals about the place, well it wouldn’t do them any ‘arm to be taught to play a little less, and to look after themselves a little more. It’s just arranging things–that’s all that’s wanted.”
“You remind me of a family I once knew, Mrs. Wilkins,” I said; “it consisted of the usual father and mother, and of five sad, healthy girls. They kept two servants–or, rather, they never kept any servants; they lived always looking for servants, breaking their hearts over servants, packing servants off at a moment’s notice, standing disconsolately looking after servants who had packed themselves off at a moment’s notice, wondering generally what the world was coming too. It occurred to me at the time, that without much trouble, they could have lived a peaceful life without servants. The eldest girl was learning painting–and seemed unable to learn anything else. It was poor sort of painting; she noticed it herself. But she seemed to think that, if she talked a lot about it, and thought of nothing else, that somehow it would all come right. The second girl played the violin. She played it from early morning till late evening, and friends fell away from them. There wasn’t a spark of talent in the family, but they all had a notion that a vague longing to be admired was just the same as genius.
“Another daughter fancied she would like to be an actress, and screamed all day in the attic. The fourth wrote poetry on a typewriter, and wondered why nobody seemed to want it; while the fifth one suffered from a weird belief that smearing wood with a red- hot sort of poker was a thing worth doing for its own sake. All of them seemed willing enough to work, provided only that it was work of no use to any living soul. With a little sense, and the occasional assistance of a charwoman, they could have led a merrier life.”
“If I was giving away secrets,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “I’d say to the mistresses: ‘Show yourselves able to be independent.’ It’s because the gals know that the mistresses can’t do without them that they sometimes gives themselves airs.”