One of the interesting things about social class is the way the different classes depend on one another. When you read Golden Age crime fiction, for instance, you might think at first that members of the domestic staff depend utterly on the whims of their employers. And it’s true that even today, it’s in the interest of your cleaning person, your au pair/nanny, or your landscaper to do a good job. That’s how those people earn their money, your references for future employment, and so on.
But the relationship works the other way as well. That’s particularly true for domestic staff who are very good at their jobs. A quick look at crime fiction is all it takes to show just how dependent members of the ‘better class’ have been on the people who work for them.
In Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), we are introduced to professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow. She is at the top of her profession and, quite frankly, could have her pick of any number of well-paid situations with whatever benefits she asked. That’s how good at her job she is. But Lucy likes keeping her own schedule, and she likes some variety in her work. So she picks and chooses among the many people who want to hire her while their housekeeper is away, or sick, or there’s a large house party coming, or… Lucy is intrigued when her friend Miss Marple makes her an interesting proposition. Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy witnessed a murder, and there is a good possibility that the body may be on the property of Rutherford Hall, which belongs to the Crackenthorpe family. Miss Marple wants Lucy to do some sleuthing under the guise of working for the Crackenthropes as a temporary housekeeper during the Christmas season. Lucy agrees, and, of course, has no trouble getting a position at Rutherford Hall. It’s soon very clear to everyone that Lucy knows her way around a household, and everyone is soon very much under her spell. As it turns out, there is, indeed, a body on the property, and Miss Marple works with the police to find out the truth about who the victim was and how the body ended up at the Crackenthorpe home. Although that’s the major plot thread of the novel, it’s also interesting to see how very dependent the Crackenthropes are on someone who is supposed to be their social inferior and employee. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Hollow.
We see a very similar dynamic in the relationship between Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/servant Mervyn Bunter. Wimsey, of course, has the title and the money. He is Bunter’s employer and, technically, his social superior. But the reality is that he depends very much on Bunter, and he knows it. Bunter may not be the one paying the bills, but he has his own way of exercising power when he needs to, and Wimsey pays heed.
There’s a disastrous example of how easy it is to take domestic staff for granted in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The Coverdale family (George, his wife Jacqueline, his daughter Melinda, and Jacqueline’s son Giles) are well off and well educated. They’re not consciously snobby, but they certainly take certain things for granted. And when they decide to hire a housekeeper, they assume that they’re going to be the ones ‘in charge.’ That’s arguably a bit of the reason why they don’t do much of a check on their prospective housekeeper, Eunice Parchman. After all, as long as she does the job, it doesn’t matter, does it? As it turns out, that’s a fatal mistake. Eunice is keeping a secret, and she is determined to do anything to prevent her employers from finding out. When her secret is revealed, the results are tragic. As the plot unfolds, we see, too, how much power Eunice actually has in the Coverdale household. It’s subtle, but real.
Barbara Neely’s sleuth, Blanche White, could tell you all about how much power domestic staff members have. She’s a black professional housekeeper who, for most of the series, works for Southern (usually, but not always, white) employers. So on the one hand, she knows that her employers have a lot more social power than she does. She can get fired on a whim, with no chance of getting hired by anyone else in the same social circles. But she does have her share of power – more than most of her employers want to admit. For one thing, because she’s often not thought of as a person in her own right, she can ‘fade into the background.’ And that means she often finds out all sorts of secrets. Her employers know that subconsciously, and sometimes they are intimidated by it. What’s more, she has her methods of getting the household to run the way she wants it to run, without seeming to do so. She hears all of the local gossip, too, and makes use of it.
And then there’s Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders. Hilla Driver has inherited a beautiful seaside villa in Mumbai, and decides to host a weekend house party, in part to celebrate her niece Ramona’s eighteenth birthday. She’s invited a group of celebrities, including a dancer, an author, a food critic, a doctor and his wife, and an actress/model. Also invited are Hilla’s friend Lalli, a former police officer who’s still consulted regularly; and Lalli’s niece. With such disparate personalities, there’s bound to be conflict, so Hilla is hoping for the best. The one person she’s going to utterly depend on this weekend will be her cook, Tarok Ghosh. It’s to be a ‘foodie’ weekend, and everything will have to be just right. One night, there’s a formal, seven-course dinner at which it comes out that Tarok seems to know secrets about several of the guests. So when he is found murdered the next day, Lalli isn’t completely shocked. She and her niece work together to find out which of the guests is the killer. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how, even though Tarok is an employee, his rule is law in some ways. He is certainly not someone who accepts being ordered around, and Hilla knows his importance too well to let that happen.
And that’s the thing about domestic staff. On the surface, it looks as though they’re at the whims of their employers. But if you look a little more closely, it’s not quite as uneven a balance of power as it seems.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Man Needs a Maid.