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Swift's Directions to Servants and the Reader as Eavesdropper JANICE THADDEUS Because Swift never completed the Directions to Servants, commen­ tators have either remarked briefly on its occasional brilliance or ignored it altogether. Generations of students read the extended se­ lection reprinted in W. A. Eddy's edition of the Satires and Personal Writings (1932),1 but the Directions has dropped out of current an­ thologies. This is a special loss, since the Directions is a good introduc­ tion to Swiftian irony; it appeals to students, who can identify with the footman-persona's position as member of a crafty underclass. The one exception to this general scholarly neglect is Herbert Davis's de­ tailed consideration of the various texts and manuscripts.2 Much else, then, needs to be said. To begin with, if modern readers are to inter­ pret the Directions intelligently, they must first consider three related substrata: the position of servants in the early eighteenth century, Swift's attitudes toward mutual subordination in general and servants in particular, and the literary background. Servants in aristocratic or simply wealthy households at the begin­ ning of the eighteenth century were cruelly caught in the peculiar set of inconsistencies which characterized society in England. Within the great family—that is, the extended family which included the full household of parents, children, and servants—patriarchal assump­ tions governed social and monetary relationships. But in all relation­ ships outside the family the assumptions were egalitarian.3 Within the family matrix masters instilled severe religious values and limited their servants' sexuality. Servants were expected to attend family 107 108 / THADDEUS prayers and in theory at least they were hindered from marrying. Quite simply, servants were supposed to commit all of their emotions and energies to their employers. Reverend Patrick Delany, Swift's suc­ cessor as Dean of St. Patrick's, defined the situation in one of his Ser­ mons upon Social Duties and Their Opposite Vices in 1750: "your time and strength are no longer your own, when you are hired; they are your master's, and to be employed in his service; and consequently you cannot employ them as you please, but as he directs: nor can you mis­ employ them, or with-hold them from him without manifest fraud and injustice."4 This view was difficult enough to maintain at any time, and especially difficult in Great Britain, where, as Randolph Trumbach puts it, "outside of the dynamics of individual families, the shape of English society was determined by the fluidity and the egali­ tarian relations characteristic of kindred structures" (2). Trumbach emphasizes "the impossibility of demanding patriarchal deference from a contractual employee in a commercial and highly politicized society" (137). Increasingly, as patriarchal values began to shift inex­ orably toward egalitarian values, the position of servants became more and more problematical. Fissures had begun to appear long be­ fore Dr. Delany wrote his sermon in 1750.5 By 1720 the family chap­ lain had virtually disappeared, and with him the custom of joining together for the disciplinary activity of family prayers. Servants who had been recruited from the minor gentry also gradually vanished, increasing the chasm between master and hired help. As early as 1724 Defoe addressed his Great Law of Subordination Consider'd to the ques­ tion of the "Insolence and Unsufferable behaviour of SERVANTS in England."6 The situation was unstable. And the inevitable result was discord. Swift himself treated his servants on patriarchal assumptions, al­ though his relationships with them were tinged with his own uncon­ ventionality, as many of his friends and colleagues remarked. Thomas Sheridan tells us that "he had often some whimsical contrivance to punish his servants for any neglect of his orders, so as to make them more attentive for the future,"7 giving as an example the fact that when a new maidservant was hired, he always told her that his only requirement was that she shut the door both upon entering and leaving a room. When one of his servants asked permission to attend her sister's wedding, Swift was so generous—offering not only the time, but a horse and attendant—that the girl in a flurry forgot to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 107-123
Launched on MUSE
2021-05-20
Open Access
No
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