“Like Master Like Man” by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

A frequent and naive complaint one hears, is of the unsatisfactoriness of servants generally, and their ingratitude and astonishing lack of affection for their masters, in particular. “After all I have done for them,” is pretty sure to sum up the long tale of a housewife’s griefs. Of all the delightful inconsistencies that grace the female mind, this latter point of view always strikes me as being the most complete. I artfully lead my fair friend on to tell me all about her woes, and she is sure to be exquisitely one-sided and quite unconscious of her position. “They are so extravagant, take so little interest in my things, and leave me at a moment’s notice, if they get an idea I am going to break up. Horrid things! I wish I could do without them! They cause me endless worry and annoyance.” My friend is very nearly right,–but with whom lies the fault?

The conditions were bad enough years ago, when servants were kept for decades in the same family, descending like heirlooms from father to son, often (abroad) being the foster sisters or brothers of their masters, and bound to the household by an hundred ties of sympathy and tradition. But in our day, and in America, where there is rarely even a common language or nationality to form a bond, and where households are broken up with such facility, the relation between master and servant is often so strained and so unpleasant that we risk becoming (what foreigners reproach us with being), a nation of hotel-dwellers. Nor is this class- feeling greatly to be wondered at. The contrary would be astonishing. From the primitive household, where a poor neighbor comes in as “help,” to the “great” establishment where the butler and housekeeper eat apart, and a group of plush-clad flunkies imported from England adorn the entrance-hall, nothing could be better contrived to set one class against another than domestic service.

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Proverbs have grown out of it in every language. “No man is a hero to his valet,” and “familiarity breeds contempt,” are clear enough. Our comic papers are full of the misunderstandings and absurdities of the situation, while one rarely sees a joke made about the other ways that the poor earn their living. Think of it for a moment! To be obliged to attend people at the times of day when they are least attractive, when from fatigue or temper they drop the mask that society glues to their faces so many hours in the twenty-four; to see always the seamy side of life, the small expedients, the aids to nature; to stand behind a chair and hear an acquaintance of your master’s ridiculed, who has just been warmly praised to his face; to see a hostess who has been graciously urging her guests “not to go so soon,” blurt out all her boredom and thankfulness “that those tiresome So-and-So’s” are “paid off at last,” as soon as the door is closed behind them, must needs give a curious bent to a servant’s mind. They see their employers insincere, and copy them. Many a mistress who has been smilingly assured by her maid how much her dress becomes her, and how young she is looking, would be thunderstruck to hear herself laughed at and criticised (none too delicately) five minutes later in that servant’s talk.

Servants are trained from their youth up to conceal their true feelings. A domestic who said what she thought would quickly lose her place. Frankly, is it not asking a good deal to expect a maid to be very fond of a lady who makes her sit up night after night until the small hours to unlace her bodice or take down her hair; or imagine a valet can be devoted to a master he has to get into bed as best he can because he is too tipsy to get there unaided? Immortal “Figaro” is the type! Supple, liar, corrupt, intelligent,–he aids his master and laughs at him, feathering his own nest the while. There is a saying that “horses corrupt whoever lives with them.” It would be more correct to say that domestic service demoralizes alike both master and man.

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Already we are obliged to depend on immigration for our servants because an American revolts from the false position, though he willingly accepts longer hours or harder work where he has no one around him but his equals. It is the old story of the free, hungry wolf, and the well-fed, but chained, house-dog. The foreigners that immigration now brings us, from countries where great class distinctions exist, find it natural to “serve.” With the increase in education and consequent self-respect, the difficulty of getting efficient and contented servants will increase with us. It has already become a great social problem in England. The trouble lies beneath the surface. If a superior class accept service at all, it is with the intention of quickly getting money enough to do something better. With them service is merely the means to an end. A first step on the ladder!

Bad masters are the cause of so much suffering, that to protect themselves, the great brother-hood of servants have imagined a system of keeping run of “places,” and giving them a “character” which an aspirant can find out with little trouble. This organization is so complete, and so well carried out, that a household where the lady has a “temper,” where the food is poor, or which breaks up often, can rarely get a first- class domestic. The “place” has been boycotted, a good servant will sooner remain idle than enter it. If circumstances are too much for him and he accepts the situation, it is with his eyes open, knowing infinitely more about his new employers and their failings than they dream of, or than they could possibly find out about him.

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One thing never can be sufficiently impressed on people, viz.: that we are forced to live with detectives, always behind us in caps or dress- suits, ready to note every careless word, every incautious criticism of friend or acquaintance–their money matters or their love affairs–and who have nothing more interesting to do than to repeat what they have heard, with embroideries and additions of their own. Considering this, and that nine people out of ten talk quite oblivious of their servants’ presence, it is to be wondered at that so little (and not that so much) trouble is made.

It always amuses me when I ask a friend if she is going abroad in the spring, to have her say “Hush!” with a frightened glance towards the door.

“I am; but I do not want the servants to know, or the horrid things would leave me!”

Poor, simple lady! They knew it before you did, and had discussed the whole matter over their “tea” while it was an almost unuttered thought in your mind. If they have not already given you notice, it is because, on the whole your house suits them well enough for the present, while they look about. Do not worry your simple soul, trying to keep anything from them. They know the amount of your last dressmaker’s bill, and the row your husband made over it. They know how much you would have liked young “Croesus” for your daughter, and the little tricks you played to bring that marriage about. They know why you are no longer asked to dine at Mrs. Swell’s, which is more than you know yourself. Mrs. Swell explained the matter to a few friends over her lunch-table recently, and the butler told your maid that same evening, who was laughing at the story as she put on your slippers!

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Before we blame them too much, however, let us remember that they have it in their power to make great trouble if they choose. And considering the little that is made in this way, we must conclude that, on the whole, they are better than we give them credit for being, and fill a trying situation with much good humor and kindliness. The lady who is astonished that they take so little interest in her, will perhaps feel differently if she reflects how little trouble she has given herself to find out their anxieties and griefs, their temptations and heart-burnings; their material situation; whom they support with their slowly earned wages, what claims they have on them from outside. If she will also reflect on the number of days in a year when she is “not herself,” when headaches or disappointments ruffle her charming temper, she may come to the conclusion that it is too much to expect all the virtues for twenty dollars a month.

A little more human interest, my good friends, a little more indulgence, and you will not risk finding yourself in the position of the lady who wrote me that last summer she had been obliged to keep open house for “‘Cook’ tourists!”

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