My father, a doctor and the son of a doctor, was raised in the National Health Service and gave his life to it. The NHS was his greatest love, and it would be impossible to prevent him defending it now, were he still with us. As his daughter, I feel a repugnance at the notion that others are amassing viral loads on my behalf. Still, short of retraining as an ageing and spectacularly inept medic, what can one do? And so here I am, “bravely” sitting on my backside like the majority of the population, while better people fight our battles for us.
The writer Flic Everett summed up our feelings of wry self-loathing when she tweeted her version of middle-class lockdown bingo; a catalogue including cultivating sourdough starter, reading the new Mantel, and fancying Rishi Sunak. The list went viral, with others adding jigsaws, wild swimming, and harvesting nettles to use as spinach. A friend ionised her triumph at “sourcing” Maldon sea salt. I countered by declaring it all about pink Himalayan. Self-satire as a means of assuaging guilt.
However, more than posh salt, or even wild-garlic pesto - for those of us not yet stricken by loss – the true index of how “normal,” middle-class lives have been affected is in the number of secret staff that have been revealed.
We like to think of domestic service as some sort of Downton Abbey-esque anachronism. Alternatively, it appears something confined to the lives of the ludicrously rich as in that great iso-watch, Queen of Versailles, recording the lives of the stinkingly flush Siegal family as they shed their retinue. Staff are a “top one per cent” thing, a “high-net-worth” issue, and all the other epithets we use to mean: “Lord, not us. We’re terribly average.”
And, yet, many “average” folk have been left bleating sans cleaners, nannies, and the like. We may balk at the term “servant,” however, the culture of service has never been more flourishing. Four days into lockdown a friend lamented that she “really missed” her… I thought it was going to be “mother,” but, no, “masseur”. Ten days later, she informed me that she merited some spoon-banging herself for managing to get by without her cleaner, dog walker, ironing lady and gardener (childless, she works from home, in a not obviously testing job).
When Margaret Thatcher suggested “the dignity of service” as a solution to Eighties’ unemployment, there was uproar. However, if we chose to treat working women as being as unremarkable as working men – and who doesn’t? - then the notion of “home help” becomes equally unremarkable. Estimates vary as to the number of British households employing staff, tending to come in between one in ten and one in four. And there are doubtless legions of others who rely on less formal arrangements: childminding, ironing, bouts of personal training.
Hannah Betts is the ultimate servant’s name. Think: Hannah, maid and cook in Little Women meets Betts, the housekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And, in addition to the extremes of relatives who gambled away fortunes, others who endured industrial accidents, there is evidence of family members going steadily about domestic service; not least my great-great-grandmother, Harriet Price, a widow who worked her way up to become assistant cook at Joseph Chamberlain’s Highbury Hall.
Does this make me more staff aware? Maybe. I miss Susan, my cleaner of 15 years and, no less, my friend. Like many women, I am also noting the loss of a phantom lady’s maid while missing trips to the hairdresser, manicurist, dry cleaner and cobbler. And I’m not even particularly high-maintenance. A Tiger Mother of my acquaintance boasts a manny, assorted tutors, a tennis coach, cook, cleaner, gardener, two personal assistants, an elite squadron of beauty professionals and a therapist. Locking her down must have saved entire cities.
It’s not that I’m fancy, just utterly without skill. Over Easter, I cleaned incessantly, then spent several hours blunderingly lacquering my nails. My flat still looks atrocious, still more the hands. It’s good I don’t have offspring, otherwise the answer to the inevitable question: “What did you do during the corona crisis?” might be “Hoovered, walked the dog, repeatedly applied, then removed nail varnish.”
I may be terrible at domestic chores, but I won’t be terrible to those who so ably provide them. I can’t support every Ocado delivery person, taxi driver, or pizza chef who supports my ridiculous life, but the least I can do is pay Susan not to work. I say this not because I think I’m brilliant, but because this is the basic human requirement – a basic human requirement no one else is meeting.
We mock the Victorians and Edwardians with their butlers and their under-butlers. And, yet, they knew something we appear not to - from the way in which lives are enmeshed in Eliot’s Middlemarch to the “only connect” of Forster’s Howards End. Dickens exposed this interrelation most disturbingly in Bleak House in the housekeeper Esther’s smallpox fever dream of a necklace fiery with disease. “Strung together…was a flaming necklace, or ring, or starry circle of some kind, of which I was one of the beads.”
To ignore these connections is to do so at our peril, physical as moral.
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