- Reopening the Question of Class Formation
Both Carolyn Steedman’s Master and Servant and Kristina Straub’s Domestic Affairs frame their projects as substantive reengagements with the dominant figures of late-twentieth-century British materialism: E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, respectively. Refreshingly comprehensive and attentive to the historiography on servants that preceded their studies, Steedman and Straub offer their readers compelling, timely, and thoughtful treatments of what became known in the eighteenth century as the “servant question.” Though each of these works is written from a different disciplinary perspective—Steedman is a historian, Straub a [End Page 515] literary scholar—they bring to light a rich variety of evidence, often shrewdly interpreted, that challenges modern historiographic assumptions and thereby promises to lay a new and much-needed foundation for current thinking about subalterns in eighteenth-century Anglophone culture.
Master and Servant is an intimate and fascinating study of the relationship between a domestic servant, Phoebe Beatson, and her employer, the Anglican cleric John Murgatroyd, from the time Beatson “first came to . . . service” in Murgatroyd’s household in 1785 until his death in 1806 (190). The impetus for Master and Servant came from the peculiar events that transpired between 1801 and 1806. In late 1801, Phoebe Beatson became pregnant, and later the following year she gave birth to her daughter, Elizabeth. Among the more shocking features of Phoebe Beatson’s pregnancy was the refusal of her paramour and Elizabeth’s father, George Thorp, against all expectation and tremendous social pressure, to marry Phoebe. Shocking as George Thorp’s refusal was to those around him, John Murgatroyd’s response to Beatson’s pregnancy was even more surprising. Though he was entitled and even expected to do so, Murgatroyd refused to let Phoebe “enter the familiar sentimental plot of seduction and betrayal” by turning out mother and child (2). He not only tolerated Phoebe’s transgression, but he continued to treat her as a valued member of his household and became quite attached to her daughter, Elizabeth. Steedman’s self-described aim, in undertaking a focus so narrow as to risk summary dismissal from other social historians, is to “explain how its historical actors were able to buck so many of the trends that their historians have seen them—people like them—enacting” (1).
Throughout Master and Servant Steedman is concerned with the often vexed and contested relationship between “forms of feeling” (2). Therein lies the real genius of Steedman’s work. For Beatson and Murgatroyd are not simply or fully anomalous subjects. Indeed, in all other aspects of their lives—work, religion, law—they are models of compliance. But their refusal on this one point to enter the “familiar sentimental plot” allows Steedman to reopen questions about the relationship between social ideology and social praxis and to explore, thereby, the deep affective structure of their lives, particularly as that structure manifests itself in material relations.
Among the most interesting and useful dimensions of Steedman’s study is her struggle to produce an account that remains attentive to the emotional possibilities of her subjects’ lives but does not itself generate an overly “novelized” sense of causality. Ironically, it is the absence of evidence that allows Steedman to avoid this pitfall. In contrast to Natalie Zemon Davis’s discovery of “fiction in the archives,” Steedman and indeed most social historians grapple with the far more common condition of a maddening dearth of narrative interpretation in the archival records of the non-elite. (See Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987]).
Steedman is quite candid in her preface. “Unless they end up before some kind of tribunal and are forced to tell their story to a justice or a judge, and unless the record of their narrative is preserved, eighteenth-century poor women are perforce as silent as the...