Joanna here. The other day I was thinking about a discussion on Twitter that talked about the life of a lady’s maid. This related somewhat tangentially to my own life since I am trying and failing to fix my clothes washer and have thus taken refuge in philosophy.
It is better than kicking the washer and swearing, I suppose.
The Twitter thread was touched off by a video of a woman getting dressed in the 1890s.
There were many frothy bits of clothing, all of which had to be tugged up or around or pulled over and then tied or buttoned.
Folks pointed out, rightly, that it would have taken a bit of time and a lot of wriggling and gymnastics to get the woman dressed. Look at all those layers, they said. Bet she had a maid to help.
Which observations led to folks also noticing that everything she put on had to be washed and ironed and put away and generally taken care of. Somebody had to do the work of that.
Much solidarity with the poor lady’s maid, of which I approve.
It got me to thinking about how this ladysmaiding worked at different levels of society.
Or, at least, at two levels of society.
I will call these the Pemberley level and the Longbourn level since this is a fiction-centric blog here.
Pemberley is, of course, the grand mansion in which Fitzwilliam Darcy and his sister Georgiana hang out.
Mr. Darcy owns this big ‘ole hunking chunk of real estate, having inherited it from his father. Darcy is rich rich, rather than just a little rich. Like, the top 1% of the top 1% rich. His sister has a dowry of 30,000 pounds, which makes her one of the biggest prizes in England. His aunt is “Lady Catherine”. On his mother’s side he’s the grandson and nephew of an earl. He has such close ties to the nobility he might as well be titled.
Longbourn is the family home of the Bennets. Principally Elizabeth Bennet, for whom Darcy has complicated, inappropriate, and reluctant hots.
Longbourn is a big comfortable house within walking distance of a small provincial town. The Bennets are not nobility. Not even close to it. But they move among the cream of their provincial society, confident they will hobnob with inhabitants of the major local houses, the equal of Sir William Lucas who made his fortune in trade and was later knighted. Elizabeth’s father is brother to a well-to-do merchant
and to a country attorney.
Call the Bennets solid members of the Regency 1%. Technical term: petty gentry.
(Petty from late C14, peti, meaning "small, little, minor." Not originally disparaging, as is still found in petty cash, petty officer, and here in petty gentry.)
The Bennets were members of a professional and entrepreneurial elite who worked, rather than lived on inherited wealth or land ownership. Elizabeth is sufficiently genteel to be asked to dance by a Mr. Darcy, but they are not social equals.
So. Lady’s maids.
Pemberley had a plethora of servants.
How big a plethora?
Usual estimates for a very wealthy man’s country house staff in Victorian times are thirty or forty servants.
Just before the Great War, Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed, employed 25 maids, 14 footmen, and three chefs.
Neither estimate counts the gardeners or grooms or dairy maids or folks wandering around carrying rakes over their shoulders. The outdoor staff.
Georgiana Darcy certainly had a skilled lady’s maid—someone well-trained, who had no duties
beyond looking after the clothing and appearance of young Georgiana.
Georgiana’s maid would not have been under the orders of the Pemberley housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds. The lady’s maid worked only and directly for Georgiana. Her social status among servants was right up there at the top with the housekeeper and butler.
In a corporation she would have been the Vice President in charge of an important but independent subsidiary, lateral to the CEO and CFO.
As to the Longbourn servant squad …
Starting from the respectable working classes and moving upward, who employed how many and doing what?
“The first living-in servant would be a 'general' maid-of-all-work, almost always a young girl often of only thirteen or fourteen: the next addition a house-maid or a nurse-maid, depending on the more urgent needs at the time. The third servant would be the cook, and these three … formed a group which could minimally minister to all the requirements of gentility.
At this point, the first manservant would usually appear, whose duties would combine indoor work such as waiting and valeting with care of the horse or pony and carriage.
“Beyond this, the progression was not so predictable. The fifth servant might be a lady's maid or a kitchen-maid to act as assistant to the cook, or a nursemaid if there was not one already. The sixth would almost certainly be another man, acting as butler and releasing the other as a wholetime coachman or groom, which would be necessary with ownership of a four-wheeled carriage and an income of £1,000 a year.”
John Burnett, Professor of Social History, Brunel University
The Bennets are at that cusp where the “next servant” question diverges. They kept a carriage and five indoor servants; butler, cook, housekeeper, maid and scullery maid.
Did they have a shadowy sixth servant, another male who served as coachman and groom? It seems likely. He’s not mentioned, yet Mr. Bennet, according to Austen—who should know–had an income of 2000 pounds.
Maybe the coachman is just not interesting enough to put in a scene. Maybe Mrs. Bennet was very extravagant.
In any case, what the Bennets did not have was a lady’s maid. She'd have popped up some time or other.
So. What did Georgiana’s lady’s maid do in that fulltime employment she was holding down?
You ready for this?
You can just skip it and say to yourself, "the maid kept busy."
A lady’s maid dressed and groomed the mistress; styled her hair; advised on clothes; applied or assisted in applying cosmetics and perfumes; helped her mistress dress and undress, removed stains from clothing; sewed, mended, and altered garment; darned stockings; continually monitored every piece of clothing that left her care to be worn or washed; accounted for and was responsible for the protection of all jewelry; cleaned delicate and expensive fabrics by hand; brought her mistress morning tea in bed; possibly read aloud to her; massaged her temples when she had a headache; clipped her toenails; nursed her when she was sick; administered medicines; prepared her bath; brought up the washing-up water; freshened the bed chambers—picked up after her mistress, swept, polished, aired out, and dusted; cleaned and polished wash basins, glasses, and water jugs; changed bed linens; emptied the chamber pot; fetched and arranged flowers; laid the fire and lit it in the morning: trimmed candles and lamps: communicated with shop owners and tradesman in matters related to her mistress’ clothing, medical, and cosmetic purchases; performed secretarial tasks; delivered messages; took charge of packing for trips and, often, the journey itself; acted as chaperone.
That was the state of the art at Pemberley. You can see why the lady’s maid was not only senior among the staff, but often one of the most well educated and well spoken. She might even learn a few dozen phrases in French and drop them into conversation.
Meanwhile, back at Longbourn.
Some of the lady's maid servanting stuff was just not done.
At Longbourn nobody kept an inventory of clothing, took charge of the family jewels, or intervened between Mrs. Bennet and the shopkeepers.
I doubt the household got tea in bed in the morning. (Well … maybe Mrs. Bennet.) The poor maid would be busy helping cook breakfast instead of preparing seven trays.
But most of the Pemberley task list actually did have to be done at Longbourn too, though not quite as obsessively. Work got split between the aforementioned harried housemaid and the women of the house.
In Langbourn the housemaid dusted and swept, maybe did the plain sewing, brought up bathwater and carried away slops, made the fires, trimmed the lamps, changed the beds, and – I do suspect – picked up all the clothes the kids left on the floor, grumbling under her breath all the time.
Probably spent her half day off trying to find work in a house with no teenagers.
The women of the household did the rest.
Which brings us full circle to the Internet video of the woman getting dressed in 1895 clothing.
Did the woman have a lady's maid?
If her family income was about 1000 pounds she probably did.
But for most people …
All the wriggling, tying tabs at the back of your waist, doing up those awkward buttons, pulling big heavy dresses over your head and not catching them on your ears, rolling your hair up in back and sticking silk flowers in it, getting that fiddly catch on the necklace closed
… you called in the housemaid,
or you and your sisters did it turn and turn about.
That was how Jane Austen did it, I’m fairly sure.
If you could have a Lady’s maid to do one thing.
One luxurious thing.
What would it be?
Me – I’d want a personal-trainer Lady’s maid.