Friday, January 20, 2012

Betty by the Numbers: Servants, or ‘Friends’

via email from Betty van den Betsy:

Betty by the Numbers: Servants, or ‘Friends’

They have more servants than pets!!! Probably very sensible, really... but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I look around the mess that is my home, or crawl around the socking-ungreat Honda with a tire-pressure gauge, or pull the pretty lights off the insanely-spiky fir tree by the driveway on the coldest day in January, and perhaps most especially when I stagger through the front door at 11:30pm, after a 16-hour work day that involved three airports and two regional jets, ricochet off the giant pile of laundry into the kitchen and contemplate pulling a slice of bread from the frosted-over freezer and throwing it into the toaster, only to decide I’m too tired to cook, I sometimes wish the Jonkheer were the kind of full-time helpmeet-type who would organize the Christmas lights and leave some soup in a crock pot once in a while. I know people who have such spousal units – these people are almost always men, and often my boss, and they have a wife at home to pick up the dry cleaning, bear and rear the kiddies, get the trash collected and the cars to the inspection station, change the sheets and scrape that stuff out of the sink. These lucky folks seem to climb corporate ladders with élan, clean socks and home-cooked lunches. I want one – I want a wife!

Hmm. A wife. Useful, but may be emotionally demanding and potentially quite expensive ($20 million for Mrs. Wendt in the divorce settlement, including$10k/month for clothing, but much less than the $50 million she sought).

Perhaps a nice ‘treasure’ or ‘friend’ instead, like Henrietta Nesbitt, a housekeeper at the White House in 1939...

For an interesting look at the value and history of the ‘corporate wife,’ try this link.

Yeah, maybe. But consider, for a moment – wouldn’t a clutch of devoted family retainers be even better? Goodness knows, Betty thinks so! In her world, wives are mostly useful for flower arranging, tatting prettily by a pink-shaded lamp, and listening to tales of grisly illnesses and operations; and once in a while helping deliver a baby, amputate a limb, or save a family from a raging inferno. Husbands do a lot of driving, drop mail on the floor, and provide funds for shopping excursions and housekeeping. Servants, who are also valued friends (the kind of friends who sleep in the basement and don’t join you for meals or come to your parties), do the yeoman’s share to keep the home fires burning, and the grates cleaned between times.

But this is Betty by the Numbers, not The Betty Philosophy of Household Maintenance and Friendship, so I shall get to it. There are a total of 516 (!!!) treasured friends over 135 books, from the concentration-camp survivor Jan, who is butler, cook, housemaid and eyes to Benedict van Manfeld in Cassandra by Chance (1973), to Mrs. Drew, who is really past it, but still lingers in the Cresswell home in Last April Fair (1980). (Because that’s what ‘friends’ do?) Anyway, quiz question: who pays for more household helpers, heroes or heroines? Too hard? Give up? Or did you shout out immediately: “the men!”

Ayup, the heroes sponsor 434 domestic pillars: 3.2 per doctor (or engineer, businessman, academic). And what’s more, 100% of heroes have professional support at home, every ruddy one of them. Over on the distaff side, just 42% of heroines get a hand with the dustpan; fortunately, 100% of them marry into a life of maids and gardeners! (I think it worth noting that, pre-marriage, the ladies have just ½ of one servant/treasure/friend to every household pet, while the gents have 1.5 servants/treasures/friends per animal. It makes a difference, you know.)

William Hogarth had six or so household-staffers in the 1750s, and chose to paint them. Portraits of servants were not the norm in his day.

As it ever was, women do more of the household chores; 64% of treasures are female. The heroines are more in need of diversity training, as only 21% of their home aides are male. The heroes generously employ 39% valets, butlers, housemen, boys to help in the garden, etc., and 61% housekeepers, maids, former nannies, etc.

Speaking of nannies: both Esmerelda (1976) and Leonora Crosby, the Daughter of the Manor (1997) count Nanny amongst their mainstays, whilst heroes employ eight of these staunch guardians and former guardians of British infancy. These are minute percentages, but you can’t measure love.

Nannies come in many forms...

Only the men employ married couples, but they employ them in legions. Almost half – 41% - of their staff are united in bonds of holy wedlock, like Joop and Jette in the der Huizma household of Discovering Daisy (1999). The most famous of the married couples, of course, are the not-yet married Trottie and Dodge of Fate Takes a Hand (1995). You remember Trottie and Dodge! She’s Miss Trott, the ‘retired’ housekeeper for the Warburton family who still lives with and does lots of work for Eulalia Warburton and her young first-cousin-once-removed. He’s the super-handy houseman and delivery boy for orthopaedic consultant Fenno van Linssen, UK division. (Married couple Pete and Anneke care for Fenno in Hilversum, with the help of two gardeners and a boy.) When Fenno secretly buys Eulalia a cottage and gives her £56,000, Dodge spends a lot of time helping Trottie get everything set up and meals on the table, etc., and they fall in love. Awww. Sweet. (Spoiler alert: so do Eulalia and Fenno!)

Household help became more expensive and harder to find as the 60s progressed to the 00s, but not so’s you’d notice in the Neels Novels – or maybe her gents just got richer. Adelaide Peters’s family has Nellie to help around the house; Coenraad Blankenaar van Essen has Tweedle and Mrs. Tweedle plus a chauffeur named Henk back in 1969’s Sister Peters in Amsterdam. In 2001, An Ordinary Girl like Philomena Selby’s home is blessed with Mrs. Dash coming twice a week to oblige, while James Forsyth has a treasure in Jolly at the London house, and another treasure in Berkshire, where Mrs. Willet does all the work. On the distaff side, we do see more of the twice-a-weekers as the decades mount, but as late as 1998 Claudia Ramsay’s great uncle manages to keep on butler Tombs, housekeeper Mrs. Pratt, maid Jennie and old Stokes to help in the garden.

Incidentally, whilst heroines’ jobs are a whole topic unto themselves, it is worth noting here, I think, that 12 of our heroines, or 9%, themselves hold domestic positions at one point or another.

Matilda Beatrice can still find work in The Lady, especially given her fluency in English and “willingness to help out in all aspects of our busy lives.”

So I did a little scouting about on computer, and managed to find a few salaries listed for domestic help in the U.K. The Eden Private Staff agency has an opening for a child-friendly chauffeur/handyman/gardener, living out in London, for £30-40,000 per year. An assistant butler in Aspen, Colorado can get at least £45,000 for what seems to be a live-in position. A live-in nanny/cook/housekeeper, working five and a half 12-hour days per week commands £400/week and shares a bathroom. Staff of Distinction clients are willing to pay £600-800/week for couples working 40-50 hours per week, with self-contained or separate accommodation. (And they have one listing for an Amsterdam-based position!) So lucky thing Gideon Aderik has means beyond his surgeon’s salary, as his staff salaries run north of £50,000 a year, plus at a very rough guess another £5,000 or so to keep three people in sole and hot water. At current rates of exchange, that’s a minimum of $85,000/year or €66,000 – a very simple answer to the question of why I don’t have a nice Cork to wait up with cocoa and turn the compost pile for me.

Oh, and incidentally it looks like, for the most part, domestics no longer work from 7am until 10pm daily. At least on paper, they’re mostly down to 40-50 hours/week. I wonder how that works out in practice...

Servants’ names may someday get their own, dedicated report. For now, let’s just note that in England, male domestics are called by their last names: Butter, Breeze, etc. The exception is Roel van Rakesma’s Fred, in Marrying Mary (1996), whom I recall being a rescued Cockney, not raised to ‘service.’ Senior women are Mrs. Butter and Mrs. Breeze. Maids are called by their first names, and gardening boys are generally unnamed. Village women doing the rough every few days are also Mrs. Buckett (perfect! if it’s cleaning, and it requires a bucket, it’s rough!). In the Netherlands, it’s mostly first names, with the occasional Juffrouw Boot full-time or Mevrouw Boot coming in for the rough.

Plenty of people, some still alive today, will tell you that for Europe’s upper-crust, staff really were (maybe still are) treasured friends. Revolutionary-types have often been frustrated by the willingness of the downtrodden poor to side with the wealthy landowners they serve. Betty Keira can tell you all about primogeniture, which plays a serious role in rigid-ifying a class structure. I am just glad that The One True Betty has taught me to shake hands and say how-do-you-do to the butler.

Incidentally, the Duchess of Devonshire is looking for a personal assistant; applications by 22 January. Chatsworth also requires two seamstresses...


  1. Betty van den Betsy -- What a wonderful essay! I'm stunned at how the servants outnumber the hero/heroine couples. Good thing they were devoted!

    Here's what I know about the class system in the UK: When I stayed with my cousins (intelligentsia more than aristocracy, but that just changes the basis for the self-regard), Anne took me along to meet the daughter of the gardener, George.

    George had been the gardener back a million years ago when my great-aunt and her husband had a nice bit of land with a generous cottage on it. When they died, the cottage was sold but the six acres & gardener's cottage was saved over for Betty Henry's father, Thomas.

    Only Thomas couldn't take over the gardener's cottage until old George left and he was 90-something before he did.

    Anyway, his daughter lived in the town and made parsnip wine (!) and Anne would go into town to visit her. As an American, I was always trying to understand the way Brits related to each other, especially as it was very different from how Americans relate to each other.

    What was obvious to me was that George's daughter deferred to Anne as a former servant might defer to a former mistress of the house. And Anne was quite respectful of George's daughter. Hmmm. Anne, in another context, couldn't stand some people I'd met through my brother, because they were horribly middle class.

    I deduced that the upper class & the lower class are aligned in their dislike of the middle class. Which, incidentally, all Americans are, as it's not the amount of money you have that matters. (This could explain The Great Betty's disdain for all Americans, on principle.)

    All of Betty's heroines end up upper class, more or less, and they all start out genteel, most of them "shabby genteel." I bet Betty's family originally had the family retainer before Papa married "that woman" and things went downhill from there.

    1. Betty Barbara here--
      To briefly recap the Betty Family Tree--(Neels side of the family): Betty's great-grandfather was in the Royal Marines and not as an officer. He retired, ran a pub while his wife ran the attached grocers shop. Betty's Grandfather worked for HM Customs, Betty's Dad worked for the Post Office (clerical, not delivery). None of the census records show any live-in help, though that's not to say that 'Mrs. Buckett' didn't come in twice a week to 'do the rough'.
      So there's no Chidlake floating around in Betty's background, nor a devoted former batman, or Mrs. Trott the housekeeper. Alas.

  2. As an American, I can never understand the British servant's mentality of taking pride in staying a servant (for generations!) without wanting to change their destiny. Do they still think that way? If they see a glimmer of a prodigy in their children, do they encourage it? Perhaps it is a distinctly American trait to dream big, make our own destiny, and take risks?

    1. Betty van den BetsyJanuary 22, 2012 at 12:37 PM

      I suspect that for many centuries, being a household servant was a much better job than we consider it to be today. It certainly beat 12- and 14-hour days, six days a week, in a mine or death-dealing factory, or getting press-ganged into the Navy. Even in republican Ireland in the 30s and 40s, my Irish yoga-teaching friend's aunts aspired to be indoor servants, responsible for caring for the silver and good furniture, rather than farm workers.

      I think it's difficult for us to imagine a world where it was unthinkable not only that a woman would stay in school past the age of 12 or so (and in many families ridiculous that children would attend school at all, when they could learn to read, write, add and subtract at home, and then get to work), but also that children could aspire to lives different from their parents' and grandparents'. If you were born the eldest son of a landowner, you'd be a landowner. If you were a son of a banking family, you'd be a banker; daughters of banking families would marry sons of other banking families. Certainty and continuity, for individuals, families and society, were considered more valuable than liberty and flexibility for individuals.

      There's a semi-marvelous children's book, Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman, that addresses class and social responsibility in 1290 England. The narrator, 14-year old Birdy, begins the tale determined not to be sold like a cheese to the highest bidder; when suitors come calling, "I will cross my eyes and drool in my meat." She wants to sit in a tree and wonder, or have adventures like her brothers do -- but in the end she marries for her family's advantage, because the good of the many is more important than the dreams of the few. Gosh, did I enjoy that book until the last few pages.

      England maintained a much more rigid class structure than we did in the US for much longer. You still see evidence of it today, but much, much less so than formerly. My researches into the world of servant-recruitment suggests that most of the serving class in the UK today are not native Britons.

      I could go on and on, because I find this fascinating, but will can it for now because you just might not...

    2. Thanks for the insight, Betty van den Betsy. That book sounds intriguing. (Making a note to check the library). Yes, I believe most noble people of even the traditional American culture would put the good of family above their own dreams. I say "traditional" because, unfortunately, it seems that the trend of selfish aspiration at the expense of one's marriage, children, elderly parents, etc., is gaining ground. And let me guess: the serving class today in the UK are from Eastern Europe?

  3. There you come along with all that logic! ;0) hahahahaha

    I gotta agree with Betty Magdalen about the inherent middle-classness of Americans. In her books The Great Betty often has a plump Burghermeister who (sometimes) bores people to tears and carries the faint whiff that he just might have earned his position (instead of genteel-ly inheriting it). The seem to be the most middle-class-ish in the canon(even though they aren't!) along with pompous cousins (with razor thin wives) who inherit grandmother's cottage and kick Araminta Rose Darling out. And none of them are loved at all...

    1. The way I remember them the burgemeesters in Betty's Lands were much respected men, also much respected by our heroes. I didn't get that faint whiff. However, the next time I come across a burgemeester, I will pay special attention. Interestingly enough, they are not elected but appointed.
      But I do seem to recall, now that you mention it, that there may have been one whose conversation was less than scintillating. I'll stay on the look-out for him too.
      Betty Anonymous

  4. Shoot. This was supposed to be a reply to Betty Bafriva. Still haven't gotten the hang of this new comments thingy!

  5. Ooh! Ooh!

    Betty Andrea here. I haven't logged on for the longest time, but I've been lurking. I had to jump in with a book recommendation!

    Betty Magdalen, your comment about the relationship between the lower and upper class in Britain reminded me. There's a really fun book by an English social anthropologist Kate Fox called "Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. It should be required reading for Betty fans.

    The author explores all those little quirks of British behavior in such an entertaining and affectionate way - the over the top politeness, the adoration of animals, the inability (especially among women) to gracefully accept a complement, the inability of men to communicate their feelings. She talks a lot about the class system, and - in a particularly clever and (I believe) accurate bit - discusses how what you buy at Marks and Spencer identifies you as a member of a certain social stratus.

    The book opens with her walking along a train platform, deliberately bumping into people to see how many of them apologize to HER. But - being English and therefore automatically somewhat diffident - I think I remember she has to have a drop of "Dutch courage" before she has enough nerve to perform her experiment.

    Anyway, I think she suggests that there are in fact a lot of behavioral similarities between the lower and upper class, and that the middle class person is sort of the odd man out. For part of the time I lived in Scotland, I worked for a couple with a centuries-old title. They were lovely, but quite eccentric, and they did things that no middle class person would ever dream of.


    1. Another book to look up. Thanks, Betty Andrea!

    2. Betty Andrea, thanks very much for the recommendation. I inter-library loaned Watching the English, and while I've found it dense, and sometimes repetitive, dry or both, it's been an interesting and useful read. Kate Fox puts "social dis-ease" (why not just say "unease"?) at the center of all English social mores. Very, very interesting, and I am never going to eat peas in the upper-class approved style!

  6. Betty van den Betsy,
    I admire the way you amass all the pertinent facts you've extracted from the books, put them all into numbers and then turn everthing into a fun-to-read essay. And to see those lovely names all in a row, so to speak, Butter, Breeze, Mrs Buckett... Lovely!
    I adore the picture of Ms Nesbitt because do you know who she reminds me of? LEMON:

    And I'm glad you included a picture of "The Nanny" Fran Fine. One of her little charges was named Brighton.
    Betty Anonymous

  7. P.S.: Betty Jo Dee is back!
    The poor dear doesn't own "Heaven Around the Corner".
    (The only brand new copy available at goes for as "little" as $ 30.87 / Canadian $ 31.26 plus shipping.)

  8. That was a FABULOUS piece of writing and I loved all the little details about the little people. Thank you, I love these contributions. Ah, the household. I wish I could be one of the fantasy household too with a hothot professor breathing down my neck in an entirely inappropriate workplace Upstairs/Downstairs way.
    Funny images too, and its was terribly funny about what you said in terms of wanting a wife, me too!
    Betty AnHK