“My Servants Really Live Like Kings & Queens”: Below Stairs Intruding Above Stairs, ca1774

Downtown Abbey and its highly problematic depiction of the experience of servants at the end of the era of widespread bonded servitude has tended to color the opinions of many viewers about the nature of such lives.  More important is the reminder that it can, and should, provide us with that servitude was–and is–a spectrum as expansive as the Atlantic Ocean, from slavery at the clearest end to indentured apprenticeship and liveried valets at the murky other side.  Few topics are more deserving of the considered attention of historians and, yet, few subjects have such a dearth of primary sources to aid us, leaving theory and supposition as poor substitutes for thoughtful, because informed, analysis.  

That is a heavy appetizer for such a light main course, one provided by Laura Walpole Keppel, a younger, Georgian, nonfiction version of Maggie Smith’s splendid Dowager Countess of Grantham.  On this date in 1774, a year when George III was on the throne of Great Britain and George Washington attended more fox hunts than church services, Laura lamented, in a letter to her aunt, the lives of those below her stairs because of the problems they caused her above them.  The letter excerpt is of interest for many reasons, not least because it grants us the privilege of an unfiltered perspective on the outward lives of servants in Georgian England — and has nothing to do with Julian Fellowes.

What plagues servants are!  My upper ones all quarrel’d last week, such a piece of work, I thought I must have turn’d ’em all away, I did not sleep for two nights, for they discovered things of one another, that I am sure they are very sorry for, & I believe heartily repent having come to me in their passion.  At present tis blown over but if ever they quarrel again, my Ld has told ’em they shall ev’ry one be discharged in one day.  ’tis intollerable that ones life is to be made miserable by such wretches.  Indeed Charlotte’s maid (who was out of the quarrel) said truth, that they lived too well, & had nothing to find fault with, & therefore quarrel’d with one another.  & that is the true state of the case.  for my servants really live like kings & queens & are never scolded.

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“He forfeited all claim to the hospitality of Tuckahoe”: The Limits of Hospitality in Revolutionary Virginia

Tuckahoe Plantation
Tuckahoe Plantation

In the fall of 1777, Thomas Anburey was an officer in the British army that John Burgoyne surrendered after the battles of Saratoga.  As part of the “Convention Army,” Anburey found himself in Virginia, near Charlottesville, where he and his fellow officers were allowed to find their own accommodations among the various planters in the area.  Anburey took advantage of his several years as a prisoner of war to record his experience with the people and places he encountered.  His resulting Travels Through the Interior Part of America have proven an invaluable resource, an exceptional glimpse into life in wartime Virginia, a society that, at least among what they called the “better sorts,” had managed to retain its legendary reputation for hospitality and politeness, in spite of the insidious impact of the daily brutality of slavery and the democratizing effects of the War for Independence, both of which make appearances in Anburey’s record.

The nature of social relations in the 18th century was complex across the British world, of course, and perhaps growing quite tenuous on the American side of the Atlantic, as this brief passage suggests.  To “unpack” it, as academics like to say, reveals many layers of supposition and perception, and some rather fruitful lines of discussion regarding their connection to gender and culture.  Perhaps none, though, is more interesting and nuanced than the clear avoidance of any frank acknowledgment of the obvious, which has all sort of implications for how people related to each other and to the circumstances in which they found themselves, male or female, free or enslaved, prisoner or not.  On that day at Tuckahoe in the winter of 1779, in the company of Thomas Mann Randolph (1741-1793) and his daughters, a social line was crossed and the limits of Virginia hospitality reached.  The reaction of the young lady alone to the officer’s “warmth” and “violence” is worth a discussion–but perhaps in keeping with that time and place, it would be better not to mention it?

I cannot but in justice say, that in all the gentlemens’ houses I have visited, they never started, or would suffer any conversation on politics; sometimes, when alone with the ladies, they would indulge and rally us a little, at our being prisoners, but all with great good humour; the only unpleasant circumstance of the kind that I recollect was at Tuckahoe, where an officer suffered his vexation to overcome that gratitude he was bound to shew for the hospitality he met with.  Colonel Randolph every year made a present of two hogsheads of tobacco to his daughter as a venture, to purchase dresses and ornaments, and the ships had always been so unfortunate as to be captured. As several officers were sitting with the ladies, the conversation ran upon politics, when Miss Randolph innocently asked, “How we came to be taken prisoners?” The officer with some warmth replied, “Just as your tobacco was, by a superior force.” I need not tell you the distress and confusion of the young lady, as well as of the officer himself, who immediately became conscious of what he had said, and for his ill-timed violence, he forfeited all claim to the hospitality of Tuckahoe.

[Anburey’s Travels, Richmond, Feb. 18th, 1779]

“Winter. A Favourite Song.” from Williamsburg’s “Poet’s Corner” in 1775

It’s not exactly the Writer’s Almanac, but nobody said that 18th-century poets were long on talent.  They did, however, seem to possess fathomless resources of earnestness–and not a little charm.  This one struck me as particularly well-suited to today, when here in Williamsburg, on this Feast of All Saints, the skies are grey, the leaves are falling to the ground, and nature is starting to be “disrob’d of her mantle of green.”  There are several versions of this traditional British poem, each of which begins with the same stanza.  This appears to be of Scottish origin, although there are English versions as well that have been set to music. It was printed in one of Williamsburg’s newspapers in August 1775.

WHEN the trees are all bear, not a leaf to be seen,

And the meadows their beauties have lost,

When all nature’s disrob’d of her mantle of green,

And the streams are fast bound with the frost.

While the peasant, inactive, stands shiv’ring with cold,

As bleak the winds northerly blow,

And the innocent flocks run for ease to the fold,

With their fleeces besprinkled with snow.

In the yard, where the cattle are fodder’d with straw,

And they send forth their breath like a stream;

And the neat looking dairy maid sees she must thaw

Flakes of ice that she finds in the cream.

When the lads and the lasses, for company join’d,

In a croud round the embers are met,

Talk of fairies and witches that ride on the wind,

And ghosts, till they’re all in a sweat.

Heaven grant, in this season, it may be my lot,

With a nymph whom I love and admire;

While the icicles hang from the eve of my cot,

I may thither in safety retire.

Where, in neatness and quiet, and free from surprize,

We may live, and no hardships endure,

Nor feel any turbulent passions arise

But such as each other can cure.

[Printed in the Virginia Gazette, 21 August 1775]