Nicola here. The third series of Downton Abbey starts in the UK this week and so today I thought I would look at the role of the lady’s maid. The lady’s maid has frequently had a bad press. Dramatists of the 18th century portrayed her as a vain, twittering creature. Lower servants tended to dislike the lady’s maid, partly for her affectations to gentility and partly for the fact that she had the ear of the mistress of the house. Certainly in Downton Abbey Lady Grantham's maid O'Brien is a complicated and interesting creation who reflects many of these elements but has a few saving graces. However the role of a lady’s maid was an exacting one.
The maid of all work
Margery, the heroine of my latest book, Forbidden, was a lady’s maid when her life was turned upside down with a sudden and unexpected inheritance. It was interesting to study the sort of work Margery did and the way her life had progressed up until that point in order to see how dramatically it would change with her elevation to the Ton.
Margery’s story is fictitious, of course, but it is based on the kind of life any number of women might have had in service at the turn of the 19th century. She started her working career at the age of twelve as a maid of all work in a modest household in a small country town. (Her back story is given in an earlier book in the Scandalous Women of the Ton series, One Wicked Sin.) Her employer, Mrs Goodlake, was the wife of a successful tradesman. As such Mrs Goodlake had a small staff, much smaller than one would find in a grand country house. Rather than having a specific function, such as scullery maid or housemaid, Margery had to turn her hand to most jobs, from working in the kitchens to carrying the water up to the bedrooms. These “general maids” played the part of housemaid, parlour maid and cook as the need arose. Whilst a nobleman and his family might employ twenty or more indoor servants (there were, for example, twenty eight indoor servants at Ashdown House in the Regency period) a gentry or middle class household might be able to afford only two or three.
The fact the Margery could turn her hand to anything came in useful when she went to work for Lottie in One Wicked Sin. Lottie had a small cottage and only one female servant to answer the door, do the cooking and take care of just about everything else. Margery performed much the same role for Susanna in Notorious. The benefit of such a role was that she became close to her employers and was warmly appreciated, as much a friend as an employee. It was through the connections of these ladies that Margery progressed in her career because next she went to be lady’s maid to the Marchioness of Darent and then to Lady Grant and so became a senior servant in a large household at the tender age of only twenty three, with the potential to become a housekeeper in good time. This was a huge leap for maid-of-all-work.
The Senior Servant
A lady’s maid was a personal servant and as such was senior, highly-prized and comparatively well paid. One of the perks of being a lady’s maid was that you received your mistress’s cast off clothes to wear or sell as you pleased (which gave Margery the original idea for exchanging her confectionery for cast offs in the bawdy house.) A noblewoman of the highest rank might in fact possess several personal servants. In 1772 the Duchess of Marlborough had a lady’s maid, three housemaids, two footmen and a male French hairdresser in her personal entourage. The hairdresser was very skilled and earned £42 per annum, almost at the top of the servant pecking order, but more modest households than Blenheim Palace would expect the lady's maid to pick up the hairdressing responsibilities.
So what were the requirements of a good lady’s maid? She had to be discreet, cheerful, obedient, healthy enough to be able to work long hours, considerate enough not to fall asleep on her employer in the carriage, virtuous enough to withstand the attention of male servants, honest enough to care for the jewellery, educated enough to read to her mistress, and have an expert knowledge of needlework, hairdressing and fashion. In return she would be rewarded with a room of her own, she would take her meals with the housekeeper and in a superior household she would be expected to attend only one lady.
Contemporary opinions on the nationality of lady’s maids are very amusing. French maids were considered to be the height of chic for their fashion sense and their skill with a needle and comb. However in times of war they were a liability in case their loyalties were compromised. Swiss maids were considered safer and more trustworthy but were criticised for lacking vivacity!
The lady’s maid had to dress, undress and re-dress her mistress as many times as was necessary during the day. She would lay out her mistress’s clothes in the morning and tidy the room after the mistress was dressed. She would then occupy her day with sewing and ironing unless required to accompany her mistress on an outing. She repeated these activities during the day as required until it was time for her mistress to retire to bed, whereupon she would brush her hair for a half hour as well as help her undress. It doesn’t sound very exciting unless one was maid to a lady who travelled a great deal, in which case you would get to see the world.
One aspect of the maid’s work that did sound rather more interesting was the creation of various concoctions to help a lady with problems such as freckles and sunburn. These potions would be made in the stillroom using anything from herbs such as lavender and rosemary to milk, lemons, lard and bullocks’ gall, which the housemaids also used to clean marble!
A rather sad reflection on the role of the lady’s maid comes from one contemporary writer: “Your elevation into comfort and luxury – your better clothes, your seat in the dressing room and in your master’s carriage – are only circumstances in your service and are not given to you to last…” It is a clear indication that as a lady’s maid got older not all could rely on the loyalty of their mistress in keeping them at her side.
Some lady’s maids did become housekeepers but this was not common and it was a promotion resented by the housemaids who felt that they had more appropriate experience. Some also married above their station but again they were warned on the dangers and temptations: “If you have any personal attractions, beware of the least familiarity with any of the gentlemen of the family. Anything of the kind will lead to improper consequences.”
I have collected a pretty extensive collection of books about life below stairs and it was fun to be able to draw on this for the background to Forbidden. It was such a different world from that of high society and to explore it gives a very different perspective of Regency society. It also emphasises how different life was with servants in the sense that there was a lack of privacy that was taken for granted at the time whereas these days many of us would shudder at the thought of a personal maid who had so much intimate knowledge about persons and our lives! I think I would much prefer to have been an outdoor servant (if only they had employed women gardeners) or perhaps the stillroom maid!Do you think you would you have enjoyed any of the roles in the Servants' Hall? Do you have the skills - or the patience - to ba a lady's maid? Would you have preferred living in a large aristocratic household or a small one?