“Was ever such a blockhead seen?”: The ‘Whys’ of researching servant narrative (Part One)

 

Was Ever such a Blockhead seen!

To choose a servant for his Heroine!

  • Henry and Anna Giffard, Pamela. A comedy, 1741[1]

 

The “Gothic Servants” project, including the monograph “Servants and the Gothic” (currently in development) and the supporting articles and profiles you may have already explored through this site, in many ways seems like a rather improbable undertaking. Servants in literature, and in particular early eighteenth century literature, are habitually marginalized in critical readings. This is perhaps less because no one actively acknowledges them than because because everyone assumes they know exactly how to define the fictional servant character’s very limited role. Personally, I found servant narratives very tedious when I first read the texts which would serve as the foundation of my research. Their brief, jumbled, seemingly unsophisticated interjections were at best a bathetic form of comic relief, and they were always the parts of early Gothic novels that I skipped. Why bother delving into servant narrative when veiled portraits and mad monks beckoned?

As the Giffards’ epilogue suggest, only a fool would think that a figure so marginalized within both the social hierarchy and literary depictions could possibly make for a compelling heroine. Alternatively, given that this epilogue came at the end of a theatrical adaptation of one of the most influential novels of the age, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), Giffard’s assertion is somewhat tongue in cheek. This work inspired an unprecedented spike in literary output and redefined popular culture, and also, most notably, featured an extremely loquacious servant as the Heroine. In spite of (or because of) her servant role, Pamela Andrews was the archetypal heroine character through most of the early novel’s development, successfully navigating, conquering, and redefining a role determined by her social identity, her gender,and her moral being.

200px-pamela-1742

In this plate from the 1742 edition of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, Pamela and Mr. B- have a heated discussion regarding Pamela’s tendency to write and narrate her own realities.

Pamela is something of an anomaly in the Eighteenth Century, however, in that she is one of the few servant protagonists. More often than not servants occupy a very different role in eighteenth century fiction. In Samuel Johnson’s seminal Dictionary of the English Language (1755) a servant is defined as “1.) One who attends another, and acts at his command.  The correlative of master.” or “2.) One in a state of subjugation.”[2] The implication in Johnson’s definition that servitude requires a lowering of self and a personal dependency on the master, often with the subversion of the servant’s individual will, is an important consequence of words such as “subjugation.”  However, the servant’s parallel identity as “the correlative of master” indicates that the identities of both servant and master are actually closely interlinked and that the inclusion of servant narratives in the national rhetoric informs the identity of not just one class but of all classes.

And yet, despite the suggestion of, ideally, a co-dependent relationship in which the social boundaries are observed and individual roles remain in place, an underlying tension surrounding the servant-master relationship pervades literature and life. Johnson was drawing from a complex tradition of servant characterization and service-oriented discourse that reflected early modern structures as well as the emerging economic and social developments of the eighteenth century.  The above definitions cite examples from eighteenth-century authors such as Jonathan Swift, but also from earlier authors such as Milton, Dryden and especially William Shakespeare, whose plays Richard III, Macbeth, Coriolanus, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, and others provide significant context.

william_dyce_-_king_lear_and_the_fool_in_the_storm

“King Lear and the Fool in the Storm” by William Dyce, 1851 – an example of a co-dependent servant-master relationship in an early modern play

The use of such texts highlights changing perceptions of the servant’s ‘position’ within an evolving social discourse, a complex understanding of the servant’s socio-political role in eighteenth-century Britain which affects constructions of literature during that time.  The implication in Johnson’s definition that servitude requires a lowering of self and a personal dependency on the master, often with the subversion of the servant’s individual will, is an important consequence of words such as “subjugation.”  However, the servant’s parallel identity as “the correlative of master” indicates that the identities of both servant and master are actually closely interlinked and that the inclusion of servant narratives in the national rhetoric informs the identity of not just one class but of all classes.  In a world conforming to the overt patriarchal ethic expressed in Johnson’s definition, suggesting implicit co-dependency and explicit obedience, servant voices or ‘narratives’ would perhaps exclusively reflect the goals of the hegemonic patriarchal authority. Within an ‘ideal’ servant-master relationship, the master takes care of the physical requirements of the servant and the servant, in return, subverts his own will and identity, and obeys.  This characterization of service held a moral and commercial validity in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries, but the reality is much more complicated.  Moreover, such systems were increasingly interrogated in British fiction and particularly in late eighteenth century Gothic romance novels.

The servant is a privileged witness in early Gothic fiction, capable of moving relatively freely in both the upstairs drawing rooms and the downstairs kitchens, and is often more than happy to share their knowledge with the Gothic heroine or indeed anyone else who might listen. While these narratives are often plagued with gaps and heavily editorialized, they still contain valuable information – in fact, the subjective commentary the servant adds only further illuminates the plain facts of a story and contextualizes them emotionally for the reading / listening audience.

 

[To Be Continued…]

 

[1] Giffard, Henry and Anna, “Epilogue to Pamela,” Pamela. A comedy (London: H. Hubbard, 1741), p. 64

[2] Johnson, Samuel, A Dictionary of the English Language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers, Vol. 2 (London: W, Strahan, 1755), accessed through Eighteenth Century Collections Online, image 667/1206

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