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What does the employer - servant relationship tell us about class, gender and imperial inequalities in this period?

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Introduction

WHAT DOES THE EMPLOYER - SERVANT RELATIONSHIP TELL US ABOUT CLASS, GENDER AND IMPERIAL INEQUALITIES IN THIS PERIOD? In 1851 domestic service was the second largest occupational group in Britain with over one million servants in employment. Servants did not just work in the 'Great Houses' but were employed by middle and lower middle class families too. Victorian England measured social acceptability in terms of the number of servants employed in a household. In the 19th century most domestic servants were of humble origins and in the early Victorian period at least, were from rural backgrounds. The self-image of a middle or upper class Victorian woman depended on her management of the household and her entourage of servants. Distinct from the duties that devolved naturally on a wife and mother, were those of a mistress, or female head of household. And as Vickery says, 'An inevitable component of genteel administration was the management of servants.' [Vickery, 1998:134] As the mistress of the house Victorian women became the decision makers of the household - giving orders to servants controlling the financial matters of the household, making decisions regarding the employment of servants - a very large proportion of whom consisted of working class women. The relationship however between these different strata of Victorian women - the mistress and the maid - was often difficult and fraught with tensions. The employer looked for certain qualities in a servant while the servants looked for particular benefits. ...read more.

Middle

[Davidoff, 1999:165] The last stipulation received widespread notoriety when a maidservant was 'rightfully dismissed' when going to see her dying mother. Other grievances were of the quantity of food received and its inferior quality, the generalised names by which the servants were called - which were considered degrading. 'There was resentment too, over the lack of privacy even for older servants whose rooms and belongings were open to inspection, especially if anything appeared to be missing from the house.' [Davidoff, 1999:173] However, it is wrong to assume that the relationships between the mistresses and the maids had no degree benevolence at all. Some mistresses treated their servants well and the relationship would often go on to become more personal. Servants would be then providing emotional support and remain not just an employee. Besides this, the genteel class in general - both male and female were extremely dependent on servants. They expected to be waited upon and needed the servants. These relationships were therefore a combination of power, fear, and dependence. The dependence however was quite mutual in any servant - master relationship. The servants not just needed the wages paid to them. For many working class women, service was their only means of attaining economic independence, which admittedly was limited, but was independence nevertheless. Service however, remained a strictly classed and gendered occupation. In the colonies it had racial implications as well. As Davidoff says, 'It was the physical, intellectual and emotional, work of servants and landladies, as well as wives, sisters, maiden aunts, nieces and daughters which ensured that others (the employing class and many men) ...read more.

Conclusion

[ Davidoff, 1995:121] These themes were mostly based on their class and gender differences, but at one point Munby dressed Hannah as a slave, covered her in soot, racialising the body of a working class woman. Munby's obsession with dirt was another recurrent theme. It actually was the middle class phobia for dirt and grime that formed a part of the working class identity. All these aspects can be clearly seen in Hannah and Munby's relationship, which was highly personalised, where aspects of class, gender, and race were all intertwined. 'The pervasiveness of both class and gender categories, which it (the Hannah and Munby collection of diaries) illustrates, stems from the effect of often unconscious, highly charged, emotional expectations laid down in childhood, which in many cases appear in the form of subliminal images. The mutual pre-occupations of both Hannah and Munby with boundaries and their experience of crossing these boundaries in both fantasy and reality can tell us a lot a great deal about the way the fabric of the Victorian society was created and maintained.' [Davidoff, 1995: 141] The Victorian period was a time of intensive social and cultural changes. The domestic servant issue was a part of the innumerable issues that arose at this point. The relationship between the employer and servants not just changed during this period, it also established a new occupational group that lasted till the world war. However, we can conclude by saying that though there were class, gender and racial inequalities that this group suffered from, the servant - master relationship at this point was mainly one of interdependence. --------------------------X-------------------------- 1 1 ...read more.

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