Servant’s Tooth

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!


King Lear. Act i. Sc. 4.

As a post-colonialist settler in post-Imperial Sri Lanka, I found a resonance in these words from Joseph Conrad’s first short story, Karain. He is describing the first impression of settlers of a new land.

“It was still, complete, unknown, and full of a life that went on stealthily with a troubling effect of solitude; of a life that seemed unaccountably empty of anything that would stir thought, touch the heart, give a hint of the ominous sequence of days. It appeared to us a land without memories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and the morrow.”

This nicely describes the difficulties involved in training our servant (domestic operative), whom for these purposes, I will name Dobbie the House Elf.

Back in Old Blighty, not many of us working stiffs would ever dream of having a servant or ever encounter anyone who could afford such a commodity. My boss at one time was a formidable beast of the Establishment jungle called Dame Alice Perkins, wife of Jack Straw, a boring little man once tipped as a possibility to take over from the hapless Gordon Brown as PM of the UK. Straw has now announced his retirement. The Dame was often praised for having such a successful career as well as raising a family but I’m pretty sure she had an army of nannies to care for the Strawlings. Such people floated on an astral plane far above  mere mortals.

My own family were from the servant class. My mother’s father, Sam King, was a groom at Berkeley Castle and later drove the pony and trap for a doctor on Clarence Street in Gloucester. There he met my grandmother who was a maid, a country girl come to the city for employment, for another doctor.

Sam’s service for the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie provided the experience to serve King and country in a cavalry regiment in Palestine during the First World War and the Mandate.

In the London Review of Books, Michael Neill reviewed Shakespeare, Love and Service by David Schalkwyk. Neill tells a personal anecdote about when he and his wife were in service before his academic career took off. When they came to hand in their notice the employer was mortally offended. “We chose to see this as the straightforward termination of a commercial arrangement. But for our employer it was something else entirely: the wanton abrogation of an intimate bond, an act of unpardonable disloyalty that brought tears of justified resentment to her eyes.”

However, he should not have been so surprised that the employer saw the relationship as on a different level than a mere commercial transaction. Neill had been brought up with servants himself. “When my mother paid a return visit to Northern Ireland in 1981, and went searching for her old housekeeper in Omagh, she was to be met with unexpected coldness, and then to find herself gazing at a shrine to a dead son, bearing the accusatory legend ‘Murdered by the Brits’. As surely as the township risings had done in South Africa, the Troubles had exposed as a nostalgic fiction the comforting belief that master-servant relations belonged inside the affective nexus of ‘family’.”

David Schalkwyk himself, author of the book Neill is reviewing, was brought up in apartheid South Africa. In the apartheid world, the young Schalkwyk “was defined legally, socially and . . . psychologically as a master’’, even as the material realities of bondage were masked (and painfully complicated) by the emotional bonds built up through years of familiarity and ‘surrogate parenting’. Thus when a white madam said of her black maid, ‘she’s one of the family,’ it was not entirely (or not only) a ‘sentimental obfuscation’.”

According to Schalkwyk, in the desolate wilderness of King Lear, “Shakespeare represents perfect service under conditions in which the normal sanctions that hold the bonds of service in place have disappeared – conditions of almost absolute negation, suffering and frailty. It is under such conditions that the sanctity of service becomes identical to the holiness of love.”

Shakespeare contrasts the “super-serviceable” compliance of Oswald and the self-interested “deserving” of Edmund with the “vassal” Kent’s resistance to his royal master’s will, and the heroic refusal of Cornwall’s “villein” servant to assist in the blinding of Gloucester. Kent’s reappearance in the guise of the faithful Caius, whose identity is defined by his desire to call the king “master”, and Cornwall’s servant’s insistence that never has he done “better service””to his lord, mark them as embodiments of one of the play’s deepest emotional truths – the voluntary unconditionality of love.

As a child I was puzzled by the social setup described in the Just William books by Richmal Crompton. William’s family, the Browns, were fairly ordinary, living in a medium-sized suburban semi-detached; father went off to work in an office. But there was a cook, and a maid.

The Browns did not have a butler. We got our image of butlers from the works of PG Wodehouse. Plum also did a good line in valets and manservants, gentlemen’s gentlemen such as Jeeves. These fellows were much cleverer than their effete, inbred nincompoop masters who were in awe of their intellect and encouraged them to eat plenty of fish to maintain their brain power. The cretinous masters were always scared of offending these cool customers – “ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes” is how Wodehouse described the disdain of Lord Emsworth’s butler, Beach.

Being scared of servants seemed not uncommon among the master class. Ann Fleming (wife of the creator of James Bond) once remarked that she was so depressed that “last night I would have put my head in the gas oven, if I wasn’t too frightened of cook to go into the kitchen.”

Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her cook, Nellie Boxall, “involved a degree of intimidation on both sides”. Ginnie and Nellie were interdependent in a way they both resented, continually disappointed in one another. Nellie’s weapons were moods, strategic toothaches, low-level espionage and emotional blackmail. She was always charming to visitors and passed on most interesting accounts of the Woolf ménage. Virginia and Leonard often paced the Bloomsbury squares to avoid Nellie and discuss what to do about her. They feared they would be stuck with her as a dependent for life. (Actually Nellie flourished after leaving the Woolfs, happily working for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, one of the most glamorous show-business couples in London. She was interviewed by the BBC. She died in 1965 after putting about a story that she left the Woolf household because that Leonard tried to climb into her bed.)  Virginia descended into domestic chores and madness. I have just been re-watching The Hours – Nellie is shown as fairly frightening.

Of course “servant” is a word that political correctness has consigned to the trash bin. We are probably supposed to say something like “domestic technician”. Whatever the nomenclature, they can still inspire fear, discomfort, and guilt. I know people in London who have hired cleaners from an agency but make sure the place is spotless before the “operatives” arrive. One cleaner left peremptory notes all over the place chiding the employer for her slovenliness.

Robert Musil, in his monumental book The Man without Qualities, described how the Prussian, Arnheim, acquired his servant, Soliman as a slave from a market, treated him as a pet but then tried to educate him, teach him to read and make a decent citizen out of him.

“That hour, when he had been promoted from the uncertain status of a pet kept in luxury to being a servant with free board and lodging and a small wage, had caused a devastation in Soliman’s heart of which Arnheim had not the slightest notion…he hated his master since the change that he had had to undergo. Not that he now refrained from taking books, cigarettes; but whereas previously he had merely taken what he enjoyed, now he was deliberately stealing from Arnheim, and his sense of revenge was so difficult to satisfy that he sometimes simply smashed things, hid them or threw them away, so that they never turned up again and Arnheim, who obscurely recalled them, was left with a vague sense of puzzlement.”

We had similar experiences in Sri Lanka. We were always ready to help our workers out if they needed help with household repairs, medical treatment or school books. There  was usually a surplus of fruit, arica nuts and  chilies in our garden and asked the workers tol et us know if they wanted them. They usually refused. They preferred to steal them.

In her novel about the decaying Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, Good Behaviour, Molly Keane describes how the servant, Rose, releases decades of pent-up frustration and hatred.

“That way you could get this house in your own two hands and boss and bully us through the years. Madam’s better off the way she is this red raw minute. She’s tired from you – tired to death. Death is right. We’re all killed from you and it’s a pity you’re not lying there and your toes cocked for the grave and not a word more about you, god damn you!”

The employer, Aroon, feels a saintly forbearance under this onslaught.

She muses: “Yes, she stood there across the bed saying these obscene, unbelievable things. Of course she loved Mummie, all servants did. Of course she was overwrought. I know all that – and she is ignorant to a degree, I allow for that too. Although there was a shocking force to what she said to me, it was beyond all sense or reason. It was so entirely and dreadfully false that it could not touch me. I felt as tall as a tree standing above all that passionate flood of words. I was determined to be kind to Rose. And understanding. And generous. I am her employer, I thought. I shall raise her wages quite substantially. She will never be able to resist me then, because she is greedy. I can afford to be kind to Rose. She will learn to lean on me. There is nobody in the world who needs me now and I must be kind to somebody.”

Aroon is an unreliable narrator and is here hiding the fact that her parents looked down on servants and also traders while depending on their kindness to survive and rarely paid their bills or wages.

In Paul Scott’s touching and funny novel Staying On (this was a coda to his more famous Raj Quartet and won the Booker Prize), Tusker and Lucy’s servant Ibrahim is explaining to the mali that he is frequently told to “piss off” when Tusker is cantankerous but he just lurks around until Tusker comes to shout at him and ask him why he is being paid to do “bugger all”. Ibrahim says that this is known as “reinstatement”.

In Othello, Iago combines social resentment, heterosexual jealousy and hints of homoerotic obsession. This combination adds further menace to the psychological and social contradictions of the master/servant relationship and made the figure of the treacherous servant into such a powerful bogeyman of the early modern imagination.

Neill cites later Jacobean dramas. “The more closely a servant is embosomed in his master’s confidence, the more likely he is to prove a hidden enemy. So, in The Changeling, for example, ‘honest De Flores’ – a figure conspicuously modelled on ‘honest Iago’ – turns from ‘servant obedience’ to the ‘master sin’ of murder, destroying Vermandero’s castle from within. In his mastery of the building’s labyrinthine architecture, its winding passages and stairwells, and in his conspiracy to possess the body of his mistress, De Flores is matched only by Maskwell, the servant-friend-of-the-family in Congreve’s The Double Dealer, who so nearly succeeds in achieving the material and sexual dispossession of his patrons.”

Iago lived on in Joseph Losey’s dark film The Servant, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter based on Robin Maugham’s novel. Dirk Bogarde’s magnificently creepy Barrett turns his master’s privileged and ordered world into one of complicit corruption and dependence, the servant becomes the master.

There are echoes of this in Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her staff. Her sister, Vanessa Bell, managed to create a workable balance, briefing her cook every morning and keeping a professional and psychological distance from the staff. Virginia’s domestic technicians jangled her nerves and she was afraid of them getting into her mind. Her character, Mrs Dalloway, probably expressed Woolf’s own sentiments when she thought of her staff as having “the power and taciturnity of some prehistoric monster” whose goal in life was to “ruin her; humiliate her; bring her to her knees”.

I was amazed to find that in Sri Lanka everybody, down to a fairly humble social level, had servants. Even servants had servants. Middle class people seem to be modelling themselves on the Brown family but some aspire to an aristocratic style.

You see schoolboys in the streets with uniforms whiter than the soul of the Immaculate Conception. You can bet your sweet bippy that these young men played no part in achieving that crisply ironed whiteness. In addition to being mammy’s boys Sri Lankan males have servants to cater to their whims and to bully.

I have personally witnessed boy-men bellowing for servants to rush from distant rooms where they are immersed in some awful drudgery to come and pass a glass of water which is just beyond the reach of the podgy boy-man arm.

Thorsten Veblen wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class: “A certain king of France is said to have lost his life through an excess of moral stamina in the pursuance of good form. In the absence of the functionary whose office it was to shift his master’s seat, the king sat uncomplaining before the fire and suffered his royal person to be toasted beyond recovery. But in so doing he saved his Most Christian Majesty from menial contamination.”

Veblen also mentions some Polynesian chiefs, who, “under the stress of good form, preferred to starve than carry their food to their mouths with their own hands.”

The British brought Tamil workers in from south India to work on the coffee, tea and rubber plantations of Ceylon. These indentured labourers were not slaves in the sense that they were property. Today, the estates provide schools hospitals and crèches in order to maintain their labour force and their union is not without muscle. Nevertheless, estate labourers and pluckers had few rights and their descendants are still the poorest section of Sri Lankan society.

The Sri Lankans (some of them Tamils) who succeeded the British as managers of the plantations learnt the British ways. One frail elderly gentleman (of mixed ethnicity) told me that the labourers had to jump into the ditch when the white master was riding by on his horse. The old man himself proudly told me how he once knocked out all the teeth of a worker who was impudent to him.

These brown Britons may fantasise about a Jeeves or a Mrs Hudson to cater for their needs but the recruitment pool is up-country tea estates. You can take servants out of the lines (the rudimentary accommodation of plantation workers) but you can’t take the lines out of the people.

I know that it is dangerous to generalise in these matters but something of a slave mentality persists. Effectiveness is an alien concept. It does not matter if an objective is achieved or not; the main thing is to put in the time and get the wages. A mania for sweeping sweeps the nation but it does not seem to matter whether the place is tidier or not at the end of the day. Dobbie our House Elf has been moving the same broken clothes peg around our driveway for months. There are more cobwebs after she has “cleaned” the house than there were before. If shortcomings are pointed out she is indignant and claims that she works very hard, which, in reality, means that she has been on the premises and has been moving about a bit.

At regular intervals she goes off in a huff shouting that she is ashamed to work for us and it is like being in prison. The rest of the village community tells her how lucky she is to have found us.

William Gouge wrote in his Of Domesticall Duties (1622) that some malcontents  ‘thinke their masters house a prison to them, muttering, murmuring against their strait keeping in, as they deeme it’. Some, by the mere neglect of their duties, are identified as ‘enemeies to their masters, to themselves, to the city and country where they live, and to their friends and parents’, while ‘others are so possessed with a devil, as they will seeke all the revenge they can, if they be corrected’; and even those ‘that have not the opportunity to practise such villanies, doe nothwithstanding in their hearts wish their masters destruction, and make most fearefull impreccations against them; whereby they make themselves guilty of blood before God’.

The social resentment of De Flores in Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, who, having “tumbled into th’ world a gentleman”, rails against the “hard fate” that “thrust me out to servitude”. “Do you place me in the rank of verminous fellows/To destroy things for wages?” he demands. The suggestion that the tender of financial reward amounts to an act of disparagement, reducing the waiting-gentleman to the status of a menial hireling, reflects a significant shift in the material conditions of service.

Many in Sri Lanka have advised us that kindness is seen as weakness. Those who pay less and treat their staff brutally get better results. We find it hard to behave like that.

I might dress up my manservant in a starched white tunic, but that won’t stop him collapsing face down in the soup while serving dinner to influential guests if the kasippu (illicit hooch) is upon him.

I might kit the maid-of-all-work in a little black outfit with a frilly white apron like a nippy from Bewley’s coffee house but that won’t stop her dribbling in the sorbet.

Living in England, we never thought anything about doing our own shopping, cooking, cleaning, and ironing. Here we pay someone to do all those things but still do the work ourselves. We serve the servants – cooking their meals, buying their medicines, kitting their children out for school, refurbishing their homes. We work just as hard as we did in England, but are out of pocket and have strangers inhabiting our home and annoying us and interfering and criticising and spreading malicious gossip about us.

Some might think this is payback for British imperialism. However, just as the British brought indentured labour to toil on the tea estates of Ceylon, Cromwell sent my Irish ancestors in chains to work on the sugar plantations in the West Indies.

And we still feel guilty!