I Was Thinking That Maybe I’d Get a Maid*

Domestic WorkersOne 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.

36 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Dorothy Sayers, Kalpana Swaminathan, Ruth Rendell

36 responses to “I Was Thinking That Maybe I’d Get a Maid*

  1. Now this is an interesting one Margot. I’m lucky enough that our babysitter also runs the singing group I take Beany to so I know her fairly well and other people in the village do so you feel a little safer knowing word-of-mouth says they are good decent people but if I had to employ someone I didn’t know at all, I would not be happy. It’s a strange one and there’s a lot of trust involved which creates vulnerability and builds suspense in a story. Great topic!

    • Thanks, D.S. – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I don’t envy you one bit the task of making sure Beany has a trustworthy babysitter. I remember feeling the same way about it when my own daughter was that age. You really are lucky. As you say, it’s so much better if you can depend on someone you know, who has already demonstrated that s/he’s reliable and caring. It’s got to be even worse for parents who are, perhaps, new to an area and don’t know people well, but still have to find a safe, caring child minder.

  2. I am happy to see you indulging your favorite topics, and once more skilfully so! While I would agree on much of all you noted on Agatha Christie, I think your way to broaden the spectrum, without watering-down the quality, is another of your talents. Especially due knowing how much thorough work it needs to craft & artwork like that.

    But my meditations force me back to real life troubles, so please excuse me. I have to reconsider ‘proletarian’ stuff like:

    http://www.darklyrics.com/lyrics/manowar/battlehymns.html#6

  3. When you transitioned from the Christie to the Rendell, I definitely gulped 🙂 And then of course there are those books where it turns out the butler really did do it – not naming any specific titles, though even a late Patricia Wentworth did it!

  4. Having just been on a Downton Abbey binge this splinter (spring/winter ) I can relate to your topic. It is good for all of us to remember that although we don’t live in that time period there are still so many power imbalances in the world of work. I am particularly intrigued by the author you mention – Barbara Neely. Think I’m going to hunt that one down!

    • Oh, I recommend Neely’s work, Jan! Her Blanche White is a terrific character, and you really do get some insights into what it’s like to be on the wrong side of that power imbalance. There’s plenty of wit in the series, too. Oh, and I love that term ‘splinter,’ too.

  5. Margot, I’d like to cite two examples from comic-books—British private eye Rip Kirby’s butler, Desmond, who is more than just a quiet presence around his boss; and Mandrake’s cook, Hojo, who, unknown even to the famous magician, is actually the secret chief of Inter-Intel (a sort of Interpol). Of course, Mandrake discovers his true identity later on. Both Desmond and Hojo are “deceptive” but in a good way.

    And then, there is Lee Falk’s Phantom—The Ghost Who Walks—the mysterious chief of the Jungle Patrol at Denkali. He enters and exits his locked office at Police HQ through a well on the outskirts of the jungle, and leaves instructions for his second-in in a vault. Quite inventive, if you think of it!

  6. Interesting twist on looking at the relationship between employer and employee.

  7. Interesting subject, as usual, Margot. Using a nanny cam can also add an intriguing layer. Maybe the maid isn’t as innocent as she seems. 🙂

  8. I just finished reading “A Judgement in Stone” by Rendell. 🙂 An interesting story of a domestic servant, for sure!

  9. Of course, nowadays not so many of us have servants, so it is usually the babysitter or the cable guy or the cleaner. Someone we have to trust and let into our houses… and yet we fear them geting to know us too well, taking advantage of us etc. And more books are getting written from the point of view of the ‘lower paid workers’ too, which often show just what arrogant and thoughtless employers some of them have. But I can’t think of any titles of the top of my head…

    • You have a very well-taken point, Marina Sofia. There are plenty of stories being written now from the perspective of those ‘lower paid workers,’ and it’s interesting to see their views. As you say, their employers often don’t come out very well… But whether it’s a nanny or, these days, the cable guy or the painter, there is still that feeling that you’re letting a complete stranger into your home. It’s an odd feeling, and it does make you think about just how much those folks know about you.

  10. Another brilliant topic and I’m glad to see the inclusion of A Judgement of Stone, a gave a little cheer as always when that book gets a mention – and quote the first line in my head – of course those who have access to our homes have access to our secrets too – a scary thought!

    • It is a scary thought, Cleo, isn’t it? And A Judgement in Stone shows that in a way that few other books do. I don’t blame you for remembering that first line; it’s one of the most famous, and chilling, lines in crime fiction in my opinion.

  11. Kathy D.

    I love Blanche White and only wish that Barbara Neely had keep on writing about her.
    I don’t read books with butlers in them, in general, but I did read a Nero Wolfe book with a member of a waitstaff who poisoned a dinner guest.
    And i believe in another book, a chef did it! But not Fritz, of course.

    • No, never Fritz, Kathy. He is definitely not a killer, is he? But there are books where waitstaff are killers, and they’re always interesting, aren’t they? As to the Blanche White series? I agree that it was terrific, and I wish there were more entries, too.

  12. So glad we never bothered with a babysitter, preferring to take the little darling everywhere with us, even back stage at concerts. He’d sleep the sleep of the innocent. I would have been a nervous wreck leaving him with anyone.

  13. Jane’s comment, above, reminds me of that terrifying Charlotte Armstrong novella about the babysitter from hell: Mischief. I found it a hard read before I had children… worse now!

  14. Another reminder that I need to read Barbara Neely’s series.

    I enjoy country house type mysteries with an upstairs / downstairs dynamic. And Gosford Park was very interesting too.

    • I do recommend Neely’s work, Tracy; it’s a great series, in my opinion. And I think you’re right; it’s always interesting to see how the upstairs/downstairs dynamic works, isn’t it?

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