A while back I wrote a series of blog posts about the lives of female and male domestic servants. I think being American, and, well, not being an aristocrat in a former century, makes them a point of fascination for me. They’re highly hierarchical, for one. As we’ve seen with Daisy, the scullery maid in Downton Abbey, the lowest servant is ordered around by everybody else–seemingly all at once. Also, this may seem obvious, but servants are an entire class of people whose primary purpose is to nod and comply. They live and breath usefulness, and although they are hardly born of a higher class, they are to comport in a manner befitting the dignity of their “family.”
We know this was not always the case—it never is where discretion is required—but given the high turnover rate of domestics, we can imagine that staying mum was not always top priority. The memoir The Lady’s Maid: My Life in Service by Rosina Harrison, Lady Astor’s lady’s maid, is not a tell-all, but neither is it a wholly flattering account of the position. The memoir tells it like it is: being a servant is a whole lot more complex than one might presume.
Lady Preparing for Masquerade, The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University
As the most senior female domestic, a lady’s maid is below only that of nursemaids, and this, I gather, is debatable. Compared with the household maids who serve the family at large, she is paid well, performs the lightest work, and is usually allowed access to the library. In addition, she is the primary witness to her lady’s daily well-being, maintaining a uniquely confidential position similar to a gentleman’s valet.
I pored over The Lady’s Maid; Her Duties, and How to Perform Them by Lady to get the definitive low down on the requirements of the position. Distilled in a short recap, I imagine an advertisement for a lady’s maid might look something like this:
A Lady’s Maid Soaping Linen, Henry Robert Morland (between 1765 and 1782)
Although the position was coveted among the servant classes, a competent lady’s maid was hard to find. They had the same reputations as governesses. That is to say, terrible. According to the anonymous Lady,
Sounds like a catch 22, doesn’t it? As they say, however, silence is golden. The best lady’s maid stuck to this maxim, avoided idle gossip, and used her relatively high positions in the household to reign over the lower servants with kindess and grace. To what exten this paragon actually existed, only history can tell.
Coming up: A Day in the Life: A Lady’s Maid
Other posts about a lady’s maid: