I promised to come back to the theme of servants in literature. (The patchiness of my reading will doubtless be very obvious.) This is my investigation on whether a servant can be a hero.
Let’s make a list of types.
Traditional servants. These, going back (I believe) to Roman comedy, are largely comic characters, scheming on their own behalf or on their master’s, commenting on their betters’ action, or exchanging low backchat. Some are stupid; others anything but. Several servants of this type can be found in Shakespeare, and of course the king of such is Sancho Panza, from “Don Quixote” – lovable, selfish, and a mixture of stupidity and shrewdness. He is a foil for his master, the domineering, idealistic and naïve Don Quixote (although Sancho can also be naïve). A slightly similar female servant is the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet.” They are the original sidekicks, although not always supportive. They are largely there to be funny, and to say “Yes, my lord.”
Dickens created one of the most famous and beloved servants of this type (loyal, comic and outspoken) in Sam Weller, Mr Pickwick’s valet, and we’ll come back to him.
Throughout history, there have also been noble servants. In “King Lear”, the Duke of Cornwall’s servant has four speeches to object to the blinding of Gloucester, attack the Duke, kill him and be killed. C S Lewis comments: “But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted.” We also have Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din”: “Though I’ve belted you and flayed you… you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din” – who also ends up dead.
And as I said, there’s Sam Weller, a traditional servant but almost the hero of “The Pickwick Papers”, defending his master comically-heroically against all comers. George Orwell, in his essay on Dickens, says that Sam is out of time, supposedly living in the 1820s. “Notice the feudal atmosphere. Sam Weller is ready as a matter of course to sacrifice years of his life to his master, and he can also sit down in his master’s presence. A modern manservant [Orwell is writing in 1939, but seems to think his comments apply a century earlier] would never think of doing either.”
(Gunga Din’s dates are later still, but of course he’s non-white.) It’s true that as late as 1936 Noel Streatfeild presents Nana (no other name), the servant who refuses to take wages because her mistress can’t afford to pay her. Noble servants frequently do this. And, as previously mentioned, there’s Sam Gamgee.
So traditionally the servant can be a moral hero, but normally only by sacrificing their own interests completely.
Invisible servants. As time goes on in the world of Book, revelling in below-stairs comedy may be regarded as a bit low. In many 19th century novels you barely see the servants, although they must have been there. It’s been said (by Marxist critic Georg Lukacs, according to critic John Sutherland in his book of funny essays “Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?”) that in reading great novels by Tolstoy “we should always insert into the narrative the ‘invisible serf’ …the vast servile infrastructure which made the principals’ drama possible.”
On this theme, I’m always a bit shocked when Jane and Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice” reflect on the way their home has been turned upside down by the terrible news of Lydia’s elopement. “Oh, Jane!” cried Elizabeth, “was there a servant belonging to [our house] who did not know the whole story before the end of the day?” “I do not know. I hope there was.”
The Bennet family is in chaos, but they still think it’s possible and desirable to keep what’s happened a secret from the people who wash their dishes and help them to dress. Don Quixote or Mr Pickwick would never have behaved like this. The servants are now depersonalised, not supposed to concern themselves with their betters’ feuds or private lives.
Those who’ve read “The Tenth Province of Jaryar” may note that I had a bit of fun with anonymous and invisible servants.
But some servants may refuse to be self-sacrificing or invisible. They may be ambitious, and not want to stay servants. They don’t often succeed, unless of course they’re governesses. Over and over again authors (Dickens, Bronte, Austen) point out the governess’ difficult position: she is a lady and yet her nasty employers may insist on treating her “like a servant”. The author assumes that this is a bad and humiliating thing, because the life of a servant (of course) is obscure, hard and undescribed. Happily for them, most fictional governesses escape by marrying into the class they were (probably) born to, ie that of their employers. This option seems not to be so common for cooks or parlour-maids.
More lately, however, I’m sure I’ve seen books set in the past, about maid-servants who fight valiantly against lustful employers, poverty, difficult family circumstances, and the First World War, and come out wearily triumphant in love. By the end of the book they’re not servants any more. I’ve read a few. I may be talking nonsense here, because I haven’t read many books by Catherine Cookson and Josephine Cox, but that’s my impression from WH Smith.
Can men do this? Walter Hartright the drawing-master (spoiler) does so in “The Woman in White”. But the fate of John Webster’s Antonio a few centuries earlier is a warning not to get uppity. Antonio is a steward (a very high-up servant) who marries his mistress. His mistress is the Duchess of Malfi, and this does not end at all well for either him or her. Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” has similar ambitions, and also meets a fairly unpleasant fate. I’m afraid I don’t know what happened to “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, who is a servant.
If you’re a servant boy, and you want to rise, then, it helps to be a character in traditional fantasy. I can’t resist quoting Diana Wynne Jones’ “The Tough Guide to Fantasyland”, a spoof guidebook for those “tourists” who enter fantasy realms. Under Starting Point, it says: “Having proceeded through your PORTAL to Fantasyland, you will find yourself either on the MAP in the neighbourhood of a small to medium TOWN, such as Gna’ash (immediately see SQUALOR) or in rather poor circumstances, usually as a menial in a KITCHEN or an APPRENTICE to a BLACKSMITH (see SQUALOR again) …. If you are in menial circumstances, you will be contacted by your Tour MENTOR (normally an elderly male MAGIC USER with much experience) who will tell you what to do, which is almost certainly to discover you are a MISSING HEIR and, after three brochures, to claim your rightful THRONE.”
(All the words in capitals have separate entries in the book, and I have spent/misused many happy hours dipping in and out, laughing at all the fantasy clichés which I may or may not have then succeeded in avoiding in Ragaris. The book was given a nod in the Acknowledgements to WDNKC, and is available to borrow.)
Ahem. That was a digression.
In a futuristic society, there are of course droids and drones, effectively servants, who are also normally amusing sidekicks. And we all know about house-elves.
In realist modern literature, you could argue that police officers and even secret agents are in a sense “servants” of the nation. However, we see very few servants of the traditional kind (although there’s a very interesting Slovakian au pair in “English Animals”, by Laura Kaye, which I read recently.) We see very few… either because we don’t have them, or because we aren’t interested in the lives of cleaners.
And here’s the rub. We aren’t. The life of a servant who stays a servant is rarely the centre of a story, because the servant by definition doesn’t control the action or usually know what’s going on. The servant can’t travel, fight or (for much of history) marry without their employer’s consent.
So if the servant is to be the centre of a story, it has to be a story about oppression, like “Roots” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Not very cheery stories to be in.
Otherwise, they have to be sidekicks, heroic or otherwise. And therefore with very rare exceptions like Sam Gamgee, Figaro and Susanna, and of course Jeeves (who tears up my rules, but morally isn’t at all heroic), they can’t be the hero. (And Sam is only the hero from “a certain point of view,” as I pointed out last time.)
This is a bit sad for them, I think. And since we worship a Suffering Servant, I still find it ironic, if understandable.
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