Servants on Top

minnow at minnow at
Tue Jun 14 07:29:27 EDT 2005

Hallie asked:

>Anyone else seeing this thread just a little strangely, tucked among
>emails offering viagra?

Praise to the Powers That Be (or more to the point, to the man who runs my
mailing-list collection for me) I don't see those viagra ads, but I still
nearly did the nose-trick with my coffee when I read that.  You are *evil*,
that's what you are.

>Anyway, Nanny Cook and Nanny Butler in _The Hundred and One
>Dalmatians_ rather fit in with those other life-long and not at all
>subservient 'servants', don't they?  Cuffy in the Melendy family
>books too - far more grandmother than housekeeper.

I think it may be that anyone who has never had a "servant" who lived in
the house and had been around for the whole life of the family can really
understand the relationship.  I'm lucky, because I did, and it makes it
easier reading books in which such a person lives.

When my family had just moved in to the house I grew up in, Mama opened the
front door on the third day to a small, determined person who uttered the
immortal words, "I've come to do for you".  After she'd reeled back a bit,
Mama worked out that this wasn't a Mafia remark and said, "But we can't
afford to have anyone to help in the house," in a slightly dazed way, and
was told firmly that they could talk about wages later, but "I've always
done for the people who live here, and in your condition you shouldn't be
doing the bottoming yourself" -- Mama being eight months pregnant (me), and
"bottoming" being the local word for cleaning floors and scrubbing and
doing the washing and putting clothes through the mangle, the heavy work of
the household.

We were meant to call her Mrs. Barnes, but she was "Rosa" really, unless
she was cross with us for some reason.  From that day on she came in every
weekday afternoon for three hours and cleaned things till they shone (she
even polished the kettle!), and when we moved to London thirteen years
later she and her husband came too, and lived in the basement flat in our
house there.  And it was the case that each of us three children, told
individually that we were going to move to London, said "But what about
Rosa?" before anything else, and didn't want to move, even to London in the
late sixties when it was the Centre of the Known Trendy Universe, if it
meant not seeing Rosa any more.  So we had to get a house big enough for
her and Jack too, and that was just that.  (She and Jack had children and
grandchildren, but it was us they chose to be with.  Honoured beyond
belief, we felt.)

My Mama may have paid her wages, but she was a great deal more a member of
the family than either real-grandmother was.  What's more, our cat adopted
her and moved into the basement, and barely gave any of us the time of day
after that.  Shows you, doesn't it... Cats always know...  Rosa was strict
but fair, and we children adored her even more than the cat did if
possible.  We might have done things that would upset our mother, but the
words "Rosa wouldn't like it" were a brake on mad pursuits.  She was our
sounding-board for worries and our refuge in times of stress and the one
who said "I won't even think about hoovering your room until I can see the
floor!" and told us if she thought we weren't behaving properly and sorted
out the times we weren't talking to each other.

Mama understood and didn't mind about us having this Other Woman we turned
to, because she had been brought up by Nanny, who'd lived with *her* family
until they all left home (and then went and lived with whichever of the
married children had a toddler at any given time, because she liked
toddlers and found them interesting), and was a constant feature of life.
Nanny died before I was born, but I heard more about her than about my
grandmother when Mama was telling us about her childhood.

It was Rosa who pointed out to me that there need be nothing demeaning
about being a servant, because there is (has to be) trust between the
parties involved.  She said that someone who is given the key of the front
door and comes in to clean when no-one else is in the house is being
trusted absolutely, and should be proud of their job not ashamed of having
to work for someone.  That may be the key to the whole relationship, I
suppose: trust.  What greater trust can anyone show than in letting someone
else be involved in bringing up children?  And of course the children are
going to trust such a person.


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