Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Jonathan Swift's Directions to Servants, 1731

Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Susan reporting:

We've explored the trials and expense of servants, as well as advice for a mistress determined to keep her servants in line. Fans of the series Downton Abbey will also have their notion of what happened in the servants' hall.  But none of those view the master-servant relationship with quite the caustic wit of essayist, novelist, poet, and cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). His satiric "handbook" Directions to Servants, published in 1731, was one of his last completed pieces, and reflects what must have been a life-long trial with servants. Below is an excerpt:

   "The general place of rendezvous for all servants, both in winter and summer, is the kitchen; there the grand affairs of the family ought to be consulted, whether they concern the stable, the dairy, the pantry, the laundry, the cellar, the nursery, the dining room or my lady's chamber; there, as in your own proper element, you can laugh and squall and romp in full security.
   "When any servant comes home drunk, and cannot appear, you must all join in telling your master that he is gone to bed very sick, upon which your lady will be so good-natured as to order some comfortable thing of the poor man or maid.
   "When your master and lady go abroad together to dinner, or on a visit for the evening, you need leave only one servant in the house, unless you have a blackguard boy to answer at the door and attend the children, if there be any. Who is to stay at home is to be determined by short and long cuts, and the stayer at home may be comforted by a visit from a sweetheart, without danger of being caught together. These opportunities must never be missed, because they come but sometimes, and all is safe enough while there is a servant int he house. 
   "When your master or lady comes home, and wants a servant who happens to be abroad, your answer must be that he is but just that minute stepped out, being sent for by a cousin who is dying.
   "If your master calls you by name, and you happen to answer at the fourth call, you need not hurry yourself; and if you be chided for staying, you may lawfully say you came no sooner, because you did not know what you were called for.
   "When you are chided for a fault, as you go out of the room and downstairs, mutter loud enough to be plainly heard; this will make him believe you are innocent...."

The nightmarish print, above, is by Thomas Rowlandson (c. 1807) and illustrates another passage from the Directions, offering this choice advice for footmen:
  "If you are bringing up a Joint of Meat in a dish, and it falls out of your hand, before you get into the Dining Room, with the meat on the ground, and the sauce spilled, take up the meat gently, wipe it with the lap of your coat, then put it again into the dish, and serve it up; and when your Lady misses the sauce, tell her, it is to be sent up in a plate by itself. When you carry up a dish of meat, dip your fingers in the sauce, or lick it with your tongue, to try whether it be good, and fit for your Master's Table."

6 comments:

Brie said...

Too funny! But then this is the same man who advocated cannibalism to ease the burden of the Irish poor. Swift is something else!

Lauren Hairston said...

Got to love Swift. However--there were more than a few people in the British lit class I took at a local university a couple of years ago who didn't understand that A Modest Proposal wasn't supposed to be taken literally. Can you imagine if they had been servants in the 18th century? One can only hope that they would have been illiterate. :-/

nightsmusic said...

Would definitely make me think twice about eating if the meat was too clean or naked! ;o)

CrescentMan said...

Swift's satire is matchless, thanks for sharing it. BTW there's a typo "... and all is safe enough while there is a servant int he house ..."

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Theo, though this is a satire about servants, I suspect it probably also applies to many modern restaurants- that old adage about never looking in the kitchen!

Brie & Lauren, my daughter had to read "A Modest Proposal" in her high school English class, and almost all of the kids accepted it as fact. After all, it was written by a doctor a long time ago, right? Right??

CrescentMan, considering that I'm currently in the last stages of deadline delirium for a new book, only one typo isn't bad. :)

Nancy said...

Swift was a character! What a fun read. I like your blog and have enjoyed looking around a bit. I found another site you might like, HEARTH, though some of the information might be more modern than your time periods. You can read my post about it at http://nancysfamilyhistoryblog.blogspot.com/2011/07/hearth-tuesdays-tip.html.

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