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The Maids Post by :cyclone Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :2639

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The Maids

They tell me that a respectable and ancient profession, and one always honoured by literature, is dying out; and if that is true, then two more clauses of the tenth Commandment will lose their meaning. For a long time to come we shall go on grudging our neighbour his house--there's no doubt about that; but even as his ox and ass have ceased to enter into practical ethics because our average neighbour doesn't possess either, so we hear it is to be with his servant and his maid.

They have had their day. There are no domestic servants at the registries; the cap and apron, than which no uniform ever more enhanced a fair maid or extenuated a plain one, will be found only in the war museum, as relics of ante-bellum practice; we shall sluice our own doorsteps in the early morning hours, receive our own letters from the postman, have our own conversations with the butcher's young man at the area gate; and in time, perhaps, learn how it may be possible to eat a dinner which we have ourselves cooked and served up. Better for us, all that, it may well be; but will it be better for our girls? I am sure it will not.

Domestic service, I have said, is an employment which literature has always approved. From Gay to Hazlitt, from Swift to Dickens, there have been few writers of light touch upon life who have not had a kind eye for the housemaid. There's a passage somewhere in Stevenson for which I have spent an hour's vain hunting, which exactly hits the centre. The confidential relationship, the trim appearance, not without its suggestion of comic opera and the soubrette of the Comédie Française, the combined air of cheerfulness and respect which is demanded, mind you, on either side the bargain--all this is acutely and vivaciously observed in half a page by a writer who never missed a romantic opening in his days. The profession, indeed, has never lacked romance in real life. Strangeness has persistently followed beauty in and out of the kitchen. The number of old gentlemen who have married their cooks is really considerable. Younger gentlemen, whose god has been otherwhere, have married their housemaids. A Lord Viscount Townshend, who died in 1763 or thereabouts, did so in the nick of time, and left her fifty thousand pounds. Tom Coutts the banker, founder of the great house in the Strand, married his brother's nursemaid, and loved her faithfully for fifty years. She gave him three daughters who all married titles; but she was their ladyships' "dear Mamma" throughout; and Coutts himself saw to it that where he dined she dined also. There's nothing in caste in our country, given the essential solvent.

A stranger story still is this one. Some fifteen years ago a barrister in fair practice died, and made by will a handsome provision for his "beloved wife." This wife, thereby first revealed to an interested acquaintance, had acted as his parlourmaid for many years, standing behind his chair at dinner, and bringing him his evening letters on a tray; and she had been so engaged on the day of his death. Nobody of his circle except, of course, her fellow-servants, knew that she stood in any other relationship to her so-called master. I consider her conduct admirable; nor do I think his necessarily blameworthy. Those two, depend upon it, understood each other, and had worked out a common line of least resistance. On the distaff side there is the tale of the two maiden ladies so admirably served by their butler that when, to their consternation, he gave warning, they held a heart-to-heart talk together, as the result of which one of them proposed in all the forms to the invaluable man, and was accepted. It is deplorable that a pursuit which opens vistas so rose-coloured as these should be allowed to lapse.

A lady whom I knew well, and whose recent death I deplore, was cured of a bad attack of neuritis by being cut off all domestic assistance, except her cook's, and set to do her own housework. Therefore it is probable that we should all be the better for the same treatment; but, as I asked just now, will the girls be the better for it? The disengaged philosopher can only answer that question in one way. That feverish community-work which they have been doing through a four years' orgy of patriotism will have taught them very much of life and manners. It will have taught them, among other more desirable things, how to spend money, and how to keep a good many young men greatly entertained; but it will not, I fear, have taught them how to save money, how to make one man happy and comfortable, or how to bring up children in the fear of God.

And if it has failed to teach those things it will have failed to fit them for this world, to say the least. It will not only have failed them, but it will have failed us with them. For the world needs at this moment a thousand things before it can be made tolerable again; and all of those can be summed up into one paramount need, which is for men and women who will observe faithfully the laws of their being. And what, pray, are the laws of their being? At the outside, three; in reality, two: to work, to love and to have children.

At this hour neither men nor women will work. The strain is taken off, the bow relaxed. At the same time they must have money, that they may spend it; for as always happens in moments of reaction, the simplest way of expressing high spirits and a sense of ease is wild expenditure. So wages must be high, and because wages are high everything is dear. There are no houses, and there will be none; there can be no marriages, and there will be none; there will be no milk for children, so there will be no children. How long are such things to go on? Just so long as we disregard the laws of our being. We began to neglect them long before the war, and they must be learned again. We must learn first what they are, and next, how to keep them.

Now the education of men is another text; but for women there can be little doubt but that the prime educationary in the laws of being is domestic service. You can be ribald about it. That is easy. But where else is a girl to learn how to keep house? And if she does not learn how to be a mother, as indeed she may, poor dear, she gets to know very much of what to do when she becomes one.

So I hope to see a soberer generation of girls return to a profession which they have always adorned, for the schooling of which their husbands and children shall rise up and call them blessed.

(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Maids

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