- Menials: Domestic Service and the Cultural Transformation of British Society, 1650–1850 by Kristina Booker
Despite their ubiquity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, servants have received scanty scholarly attention. Literary servants have suffered yet more neglect then their historical counterparts. Kristina Booker here makes a fresh and useful contribution to the discussion, focusing on literary representations of servants, with the ambitious goal of linking servant characters in the novel to larger debates about self-interest in economics and society. Booker’s framing of servant characters as contained within literary discourse distinguishes Menials from notable recent works by Kristina Straub, Carolyn Steedman, and Scarlet Bowen, all of whom blend attention to literary servants and the historical realities of service. Such framing underwrites Booker’s reading of fictional servant characters as “master-class fantasies” rather than recovered voices from an underrepresented segment of society. Booker does consider some nonfiction texts, such as conduct books, but she does so to define “master-class fantasies,” not servants’ lived experiences. Framing servants in this way comes at a cost, of course: it forecloses attention to echoes of servants’ own culture, speech, and values, which has been a productive focus of recent scholarship on servants.
Still, Booker’s assured account of the ways that literary servants do more to repress than to represent the realities of servant lives is salutary, if not always gratifying. And the news is not invariably bad. Booker makes the case that Charles Dickens, through the character of the abusive master, Major Bagstock, in Dombey and Sons, actually critiques and exposes, rather than accepts or laughs at the abuse of Indian servants. She makes the case that Godwin, Shelley, and even Thackeray also contribute to the critique of servants’ oppression.
So, how did the class of masters understand their own servants? What was the “master-class fantasy” of service? The period saw the pursuit of economic self-interest go from being viewed as amoral, irreligious, and dangerous to being seen as commendable, civilizing, socially beneficial, and even ordained by God (only to be seen, Booker notes, once again, as a source of social problems and corruption by the close of the nineteenth century). Booker reminds us that these changes did not apply evenly to all social groups or all participants in the British economy. In the “master-class fantasy,” then, proper servants should pursue their masters’ interests (and heed their master’s directions), rather than pursue their personal interests or take direction of themselves; they should represent and amplify their masters’ wealth, power, and significance, but they should not claim (or even desire) such things for themselves. [End Page 583]
Booker sees eighteenth-century authors as rigidly intent on subordinating servants to their masters. Amy, in Defoe’s Roxana, serves as a warning about the danger posed by self-interested and self-propelled servants. Amy’s worst acts stem from her love of Roxana, but such acts, even including Amy’s murder of Roxana’s troublesome daughter, serve Amy’s love rather than Roxana’s real (or stated) interests. Devotion, here, becomes dangerous, paradoxically empowering independence, and is certainly less desirable to masters than obedience. Richardson’s Pamela on the other hand, in Booker’s account, is not, alas, commendably sassy (as Bowen suggests) but instead more properly devoted to her master’s interests, paradoxically even in her insistence on refusing his sinful commands (she is obeying her deceased mistress, his mother).
In romantic and nineteenth-century texts, Booker finds authors engaging the problem of servant self-interest with much greater complexity. The contradictions of service and self-interest even become a lever for social criticism. William Godwin, in Caleb Williams, exposes the oppressive social system by showing that, under the thumb of his ex-master Falkland, Caleb cannot effectively pursue self-interest, contribute to the common good, or even exercise his individual rights. Mary Shelley develops this yet more starkly in Frankenstein. Justine is a devoted servant to the family—introduced with sentimental touches to make her...