- Public Relations:Toward a Victorian Ideology of Service
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In 1846, Queen Victoria commissioned what would become one of her favourite royal portraits. The painting, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, depicts her en famille, with Prince Albert and her oldest son surrounding her while her younger children distract the infant Princess Helena. Showing Victoria seated in regal attire, her right arm extended around her heir’s shoulder and her children tumbling in the foreground, the painting presents a picture of middle-class domesticity shading into royal lineage. Victoria’s soft shoulders and her free left arm appear relaxed, covered only by the royal sash that obscures the brief, off-shoulder bodice. When, in 1847, a reporter for the Athenaeum reviewed the recent showing of the painting, “The Royal Family in 1846,” he wrote that the portraits of the Queen and the Prince were “sensual and fleshly versions” of the couple, and that the Queen’s bare arms and hands were “expressed in contours that speak more of hard work in the kitchen than of the occupations of a palace” (qtd. in Homans 23).
This astonishing collapse of royal and scullery signification exaggerates and distorts the middle-class resonance of the portrait in a disturbingly daring suggestion: it recalls the common Victorian parlance of the domestic servant’s hands and arms as metonymic features of their role in rough labour. The fleshly image of the labouring hand was widely recognized as a signal of the coarse, even erotic, corporeality associated with the low servant. The Athenaeum reporter, focusing on the “sensual and fleshly” hands of the Queen, assesses Victoria as implicated in the workings below stairs, not as a middle-class mother and wife surveying the kitchen staff in detached authority but as the worker herself; the unmistakable symbolism suggested by the Athenaeum reviewer of the Queen’s bare limbs, evoking “hard work in the kitchen,” points less to the middle-class wife and more to the cook and scullery maid she employed, a seemingly preposterous juxtaposition, or doubling, for a reigning monarch.
Although this seems a shocking juxtaposition, in fact, it was a relatively common comparison. Service was so permeable that it could take on even royal attributes; deploying this comparison of queen and cook, public servant and domestic servant, was never far from the Victorian novelist’s imagination. As Gabriel Betteredge, the house steward in Wilkie Collins’s novel The Moonstone (1868), claims in his annual speech in the servants’ hall:
I follow the plan adopted by the Queen in opening Parliament—namely, the plan of saying much the same thing regularly every year…. When it is delivered, and turns out not to be the novelty anticipated, though they grumble a little, they look forward [End Page 65] hopefully to something newer next year. An easy people to govern, in the Parliament and in the Kitchen—that’s the moral of it.(115)
The contrast of high and low politics could have great comic effect, as Collins demonstrates, but then it is Betteredge, the servant, who is made to appear absurd, here mimicking the Queen and teasing the Parliamentary flock. Yet Collins’s novel establishes a clear argument for the professionalism of the servant, with Betteredge managing the affairs of the household staff while also navigating between the moral compass of the Verinder family and the domestic servants. The plight of Rosanna Spearman, second housemaid in the Verinder household and herself caught between the identity of the public and private spheres, is sensitively observed by Betteredge as he moderates the needs of the household in crisis. As the reviewer of the Queen’s portrait suggests, a sober and more subtle, perhaps even unconscious, mirroring of domestic roles collapses even the highest wife and mother into the lowest scullery maid.
Charles Dickens had earlier parsed the fine line between notions of public service and the private realm of domestic service, using the permeable division between public and private spheres as a means of establishing...