The Victorian Web if a Victorian household could afford only one servant it
would likely be a 'general' maid-of-all-work (usually a girl of 13 or 14) similar to the role Bessy takes on. Next
would come a house-maid or nurse-maid, followed by a cook. Only once this
female trio was in place would the first manservant be employed, usually with
indoor and outdoor responsibilities, such as waiting and valeting and care of
the horse and carriage. To maintain a household staff at this level would have taken about £500 in 1857. If more servants could be afforded the roles of
the household would become increasingly more specialized - such as a dedicated
ladies-maid, kitchen-maid, nursemaid, butler, coachman etc.
In the list of source material for The Observations, Harris cites The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick, Victorian Maidservant. For a time Cullwick was maid-of-all-work for solicitor Arthur Munby and for 40-years they conducted a clandestine love affair (eventually ending in marriage) based on her slavish devotion and his erotic obsession with menial labor. On his instructions, Cullick wrote letters almost daily to Munby, describing her long working hours in great detail. Despite the somewhat warped nature of the relationship, Hannah's scrupulously kept diaries (now published in 16 volumes) provide historians with a rich insight into the lives of female servants during the Victorian era.
According to Love & Dirt: The Marriage of Arthur Munby & Hannah Cullwick by Diane Atkinson, during the Victoria era one-third of all females between fifteen and twenty-one were domestic servants and an average working day could easily be 16-hours.
Like her heroine Bessy, Jane Harris was born in Ireland and raised in Glasgow. She studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, and then became writer-in-residence in Durham prison. It was there that she began her first novel, structured as a set of short stories. One of these short pieces was about a farmer-poet and a girl he acquires songs from. However, Harris says that as soon as she invented the voice of the girl, Bessy started taking over and she ended up ditching the farmer and focusing on Bessy and "Missus" - the woman who employs her as a maid. More about Jane Harris.
This article was originally published in July 2006, and has been updated for the
July 2007 paperback release.
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