- Menials: Domestic Service and the Cultural Transformation of British Society, 1650–1850 by Kristina Booker, and: Memoirs of Victorian Working-Class Women: The Hard Way Up by Florence S. Boos
Kristina Booker’s Menials: Domestic Service and the Cultural Transformation of British Society, 1650–1850 and Florence S. Boos’s Memoirs of Victorian Working-Class Women: The Hard Way Up are fascinated with texts describing the lives of working-class women in the Victorian era, but otherwise could scarcely be more different as intellectual projects. Booker is interested not in domestic service as such, but in what she terms textual servants. Her concern is with their portrayal in a series of writings—including novels, conduct manuals, and social commentary—between the mid-seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. There is also a coda discussing their treatment in the recent television series Downton Abbey. Boos, by contrast, focuses on autobiographical writings by women in a range of working-class contexts, including domestic service. Few of her texts are widely known even to specialists in Victorian history. Her book is an exercise in bibliographical research as much as content analysis. [End Page 667]
For Booker, the fictive servant serves as a figure through which the so-called master class can work through a series of dilemmas in the modernizing economy. Specific attention is paid to the challenge of self-interest, social emulation, and the increasing ubiquity of exotic luxury. Through close readings of literary texts ranging from Robinson Crusoe (1719), Pamela (1740), Roxana (1724), Clarissa (1748), and Caleb Williams (1794) in the eighteenth century, to Frankenstein (1818), Bleak House (1852–53), Dombey and Son (1848), Vanity Fair (1847), and News from Nowhere (1890) in the nineteenth, Menials seeks to illuminate the anxieties of the servant-employing class. There is a wide-ranging engagement with the broader discourse about the economy and society, with contextual discussions of a series of commentators from Thomas Hobbes to William Morris.
An increasingly commercial world drives change in Booker’s account. The servants themselves demonstrate a broad passivity. A distinctive element in the book is a move away from servants’ sexual relations and toward their treatment as childlike figures, requiring constant surveillance and incapable of developing adult sensibilities without the guidance of their superiors. The anxieties felt by the master class are generated by internal contradictions in their pursuit of cultural dominance. There is little sense that resistance by the servants themselves generates or influences these difficulties. Menials insists that the textual analysis illuminates only the ways in which the employers sought to manage their uncertainties by promoting the ideal of social emulation. “The question here,” she writes, “is not whether the working classes actually bought into this form of representation—they may or may not have. The significance of this form of representation is that it attempts to render that question moot” (124).
Menials and Memoirs of Working-Class Women differ not only in subject matter but also in form. Booker has composed a tightly organized and argued account wherein each text is deployed in support of a neatly stated overall thesis. She has found an effective means of tracing critical cultural arguments over a long period of change, and has worked hard to isolate key themes and connect them with emblematic sources. There are no loose ends. Each of the texts is given a located place in cultural debates that the literary forms all succeed in resolving, at least for their contemporary readership. The final discussion of Downton Abbey presents the television series as evidence of how the central questions are still alive, still a matter of fascination, and still capable of being worked through by the writer, in this case the conveniently aristocratic Julian Fellowes.
Boos, on the other hand, presents a much less tidy project. There is no shortage of careful scholarship in her book...