Every Time She Find a Minute, That’s the Time When They Begin It*

cinderella-charactersDo you remember the story of Cinderella? You know, the young girl who’s made to work like a slave by her evil stepmother and stepsisters? Well, the story may not be real, but it resonates. For instance, many countries have laws that require all employees, including domestic employees, to be paid. And the vast majority of people who employ, say, au pairs, cleaning staff, and so on do pay them. But that doesn’t mean such staff have an easy time of it. And there are cases where even paid domestic staff are overworked or worse.

If you look at crime fiction, there are plenty of examples, too, of characters who fall into that vague ‘fuzzy’ category between paid employees (such as a nanny) and family/dependents (such as children, foster children, and so on). Those characters can be particularly vulnerable, and it’s interesting to see how crime fiction treats them.

In Anna Katharine Green’s short story, The House of Clocks, Violet Strange gets an unusual case from her employer. Wealthy Arabella Postlethwaite summoned a lawyer to draw up her will. When he got to her home, that lawyer discovered that his new client lives in a strange, even eerie, home with her stepdaughter, Helena. The lawyer fears that Helena may be in grave danger. Her stepmother despises her, for reasons that become clear in the story, and expressly says that Helena will get nothing when she dies. That means she’ll have no place to go. What’s more, Helena is ill and getting worse. The lawyer is hoping that someone might look into the matter, and Violet begins to investigate, using the guise of a nurse/maid. She discovers that, while Helena is technically Mrs Postlethwaite’s dependent, she’s treated much more like a slave. If Helena is to be rescued, Violet’s going to have to learn the story of this family, and get Helena to co-operate with her.

Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile introduces us to wealthy, elderly Marie Van Schuyler. She plans a trip that includes Egypt, and decides that her young cousin, Cornelia Robson, should accompany her. As she sees it,

‘There are many little things that Cornelia can do for me.’

And for Cornelia, it’s a chance to travel. The two go on a cruise of the Nile, but Cornelia gets very little time to explore. Her cousin is both demanding and impatient, to say nothing of rude. But Cornelia gets more than she bargained for when a fellow passenger, Linnet Doyle, is shot on the second night. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he works with Colonel Race to find out who the killer is. Throughout most of the novel, Cornelia acts as a sort of unpaid servant to her cousin. She does everything she’s asked to do (although never quite as fast as Miss Van Schuyler would like), and has to put up with a great deal of indignity. And yet, although everyone else on the boat seems to notice it, Cornelia doesn’t mind. It’s an interesting look at the ‘poor cousin/rich cousin’ relationship.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, we learn the story of Mary Murmu. A girl from a very poor family, she went to Delhi, where she worked for the family of Ajay Kasliwal, a well-to-do attorney. She disappeared, though, and the story was that Kasliwal raped and killed her. The Indian police don’t want to be seen as too soft on the wealthy and the powerful, so they’ve decided to make an example of Kasliwal. He’s arrested, and is going to stand trial. He claims that he doesn’t know what happened to Mary, and hires PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri to find out the truth. Puri needs to learn what was really going on in the Kasliwal home. For that, he taps his employee ‘Facecream,’ so called because of her ability to blend in anywhere. Her job will be to get work as a maid in the Kasliwal household, and investigate. This she does quite effectively, and discovers that there are several possibilities for what might have happened to Mary. As she looks into the matter, we see how Mary was treated (and how Facecream herself is now). Servants in Mrs. Kasliwal’s employ are not given much dignity or any respect; and, even though they are paid, it’s very little, and the money isn’t really theirs to spend. It’s not a pleasant home in which to work.

Neither is the home in which Evelyn Matlock works in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. In that novel, Commander Adam Dalgliesh works with DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin to find out who murdered Crown Minister Sir Paul Berowne. His body, together with the body of a local tramp named Harry Mack, was found in a local church. Naturally, the team looks into the dynamics of the Berowne house, and they find a very unhappy place. Evelyn was taken in (at Paul Berowne’s insistence) when her father was convicted of a crime and imprisoned, and now she serves as housekeeper and nurse to Lady Ursula. Here’s what she has to say about life in that household:

‘‘I’m tired, I’m overworked and I hate you all. You didn’t know that, did you? You thought I was grateful. Grateful for the job of washing you like a baby, grateful for waiting on a woman too idle to pick up her own underclothes from the floor, grateful for the worst bedroom in the house, grateful for a home, a bed, a roof, the next meal. This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.’’

Evelyn’s views reflect just how much she’s been taken for granted.

And then there’s Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, which is a fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, one of the last people in Iceland to be executed for murder. In this story, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, are murdered, allegedly by Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Friðrik Sigurðsson, and Sigrídur ‘Sigga’ Gudmondsdóttir. Agnes is found guilty, and now awaits her execution. It’s decided that it would be best for her to stay with a ‘proper Christian family’ until her execution, so she is sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. The idea is that the family will benefit from Agnes’ work, while she will benefit from staying with ‘Godly’ people. The family will be compensated, as well. And the government won’t have the responsibility of feeding and housing the prisoner. At first, Agnes is treated as not much more than a slave. She’s told what to do and she does it. Very gradually, she gets to know, especially, Steina and Margrét, and they learn that there’s much more to their temporary live-in help than they thought.

There are other cases, too, of people who fall into that vague area between family members and ‘official’ employees. That position can make one very vulnerable, but there are some interesting examples in crime fiction.

Cinderella, of course, is a fairy tale, but it’s got a long history.  Want to know more about the history of such tales? Try D.D. Storyteller! There, you’ll find all sorts of discussion of different stories and their origins.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mack David, Jerry Livingston, and Al Hoffman’s  Cinderella (The Work Song).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anna Katherine Green, Hannah Kent, P.D. James, Tarquin Hall

20 responses to “Every Time She Find a Minute, That’s the Time When They Begin It*

  1. We get lots of examples of domestic servitude in 19 th century fiction via women who become governesses simply because they have no other way to make ends meet.. But I hadn’t realised they cropped up so much in contemporary fiction. I enjoyed reading this

    • Thank you, BookerTalk. You’re absolutely right about 19th Century women in that situation (although it’s not crime fiction, Jane Eyre of course comes to mind). I think it’s interesting, too, to see how that sort of character appears in more modern fiction.

  2. Would you categorize Watson as such. How about Hastings? Both of them function as friends but also as semi-servants.

    • Hmm….interesting question, Patti. They are both friends, and are both at the same time assistants. And yet, I wouldn’t put them in that category, mostly because they have their own professional work they do, and Holmes and Poirot treat Watson and Hastings with respect, even as they make mistakes. Perhaps this is just my view, but I wouldn’t classify them that way.

  3. I’m just about to re-read Rebecca where the future Mrs de Winter No.2 is in the position of being a paid companion when we first meet her. My memories of the book are somewhat vague, but I love the bit in the film where her employer finds out she’s to be married to a man that her employer thinks is way above her social class and will now be rich! It almost makes up for everything else young Mrs de W, has to go through…

    • That is a good bit, FictionFan. I love the consternation! And I like the way it shows what the attitudes of the time were. Certain people were ‘only’ governesses, or ‘only’ companions, or whatever, and people ‘ought to know their places.’ I think du Maurier got the social attitudes down quite well. I’m glad you mentioned Rebecca, as it’s a good example of what I had in mind. I ought to re-read the novel myself. Perhaps it’s time I went to Manderley again…

  4. Great examples, Margot. I see several new-to-me books I need to check out. Interesting topic that makes you stop and ponder unfortunately at just how realistic it is.

  5. Another wonderful post, Margot! 🙂

  6. Keishon

    I’m not sure if A Judgement in Stone would count? In that book, the paid help, Eunice, was illiterate and the continued poking and prodding into her life and her fear of exposure made her respond in a violent way. Other than that book, I can’t really think of anything else. Interesting post as always.

    • Thanks, Keishon. And, you know, I think Eunice Parchman is an interesting example. It’s true that she’s not treated like a slave. But the family certainly takes her, in an odd sort of way, for granted. Hmmm…thanks for mentioning her. She’s a memorable character.

  7. I see from Keishom’s comment that they had the same idea – the paid help who turned against her family – Eunice Parchment killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write’ – but I’m going to mention her anyway!

    • And why not, Cleo? Eunice Parchman is a terrific character, and I do like the way Rendell depicts her relationship with the Coverdale family. I’m very glad you and Keishon mentioned her.

  8. Such an unusually delightful theme, Margot. I’m going to get to Tarquin Hall this year.

    • Thank you, Prashant. I hope you’ll enjoy Hall’s work. To me, anyway, it’s a solid look at modern Delhi. There’s wit, too, although not enough to detract from the seriousness of some of what Hall writes. And he has a way of raising issues without being confrontational about it, if I may put it that way.

  9. The idea of a paid companion, in older books, has always seemed off, like having a ‘paid friend’. The position of such a companion must be difficult at best, and horrible and impossible at worst. No wonder they play such varied and important roles in a number of Agatha Christie books and short stories. She looked at the role from many angles.

    • She really did, Moira. And I’ve always wondered about the concept myself. It does seem awkward and difficult, with the possibility of real abuse. Not a position I’d want. But you’re right, there are plenty of them in GA stories, including Christie’s.

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