Monday, October 17, 2016

Victorian "Class Crossing"

During one of the discussions in this blog recently, I jokingly suggested that there could be a scholarly paper or a Ph.D. about lady-to-maid transformation plots, possibly written by a woman fascinated with the topic. Guess what? I've come across something approximating that - an article titled "Campaigns of Curiosity: Class Crossing and Role Reversal in British Domestic Service, 1890-1950" by Lucy Delap. You can download the full paper in pdf format here. Large part of it, as the title suggests, is devoted to Elizabeth Banks's 1894 book that we've discussed here already, but it also contains a lot of other examples of men and women willingly crossing the boundaries of class, which, in many cases, meant joining the domestic stuff. Here are some interesting cases mentioned in that paper (which is very worth reading in full if you are interested in the topic):

-- The American journalist Nellie Bly had undertaken undercover work in the United States to investigate child and sweated labour from 1885, and the participation of women in this style of journalism, as well as in philanthropic work that required impersonations, became well established on both sides of the Atlantic.

-- Beatrice Potter disguised herself as a Jewish “trouser-hand” in 1888, and claimed that this gave her investigation into sweated labour extra validity. She claimed both invisibility and empathy as the positive products of her disguise, and declared herself to be “surprised at the complete way they have adopted me as one of their class.”

-- The idea of women undertaking such investigations quickly became parodied in fiction; George Sims published in 1902 a short story in which a mistress realizes that her former parlourmaid was an American journalist

-- In 1904, Mary Higgs undertook Five Days and Five Nights as a Tramp, followed by her 1906 study titled Glimpses Into the Abyss. Higgs toured the female casual wards and lodging houses of Lancashire, disguised as a tramp. She described her impersonation as an “ordeal”, necessary because other methods of investigation proved useless

--  Lady Constance Lytton  famously disguised herself as a lowly suffragette ‘Jane Wharton’ in 1909 in order to expose the class hypocrisy involved in prison treatment. Female impersonations, then, were perfectly possible, and became a sensational feature in Edwardian reform and entertainment texts.

-- Ada (Mrs. Cecil) Chesterton disguised herself as one of the poor and wrote two sensational class-crossing narratives, In Darkest London (1926) and I Lived in a Slum (1936). She assured her readers that as a shabbily dressed woman she could easily “melt into the landscape of the underworld and become so absorbed by the atmosphere that I escape attention…” Chesterton noted how many former servants she found who had taken charring work to survive, which she herself did as well.

-- In 1930, the Manchester Guardian published a letter describing a role reversal. “E.V.P.”, an office worker, wrote of her initial agreement with Margaret Bondfield, and her experimental three-month post as a cook-general, to test out the profession for herself. Her duties were light, and she worked comparatively short hours. Nonetheless, she found the social relations of service intolerable— and unlike most other role reversers, she was strongly pessimistic for the future of domestic service The “growing sense of inferiority” that came from being treated as a social outcast made the position unbearable. The writer noted that “some of the [friends of the mistress] were girls employed in similar positions to that I had held before I donned the cap and apron of domesticity,” and she resented their disdain for her company.

-- An extended account of ‘passing’ as a domestic servant was offered by Monica Dickens in One Pair of Hands, published in 1939. After a privileged upper-class upbringing, Monica Dickens ‘whimsically’ persisted for a year and half with a string of short-term daily and live-in domestic posts as a cook, cook-general, scullery maid, laundry maid, and housemaid. While working as a daily cook-general, Dickens remained served by her own household servants, who had to accommodate her new early-rising hours. Her experience of role reversal was thus tempered by her own continuing and unremarked reliance on servants—but seemed to be a far deeper identity shift than that of the didactic Elizabeth Banks

-- A similar undertaking of role reversal was published as The Seven Chars of Chelsea in 1940 by Celia Fremlin, a self-acknowledged ‘arm-chair socialist’ who wanted to understand class society. Fremlin’s late 1930s posts as a live-in scullery maid, a boarding house maid, and a charwoman in a public hospital, suggest the growing diversity of domestic service, as more and more employees went into institutional service. Her experience of a traditional living-in post in a private household, working as a scullery maid to an upper-class lady, was not positive. In this job, despite the high salary and very light duties, Fremlin likened her role to that of a contented poodle always on a lead. The house was like a ‘model prison’, in which servants performed a series of empty duties.


  1. NICKEL AND DIMED: ON (NOT) GETTING BY IN AMERICA,by Barbara Ehrenreich, is a recent example of that kind of undercover journalistic exposé. It was published in 2001, and it's still widely read and discussed.

    1. Thank you. Its an old journalistic tradition that hasnt gone away.

  2. An Appreciative ReaderOctober 18, 2016 at 6:33 PM

    Really interesting stuff you've dug up here... We all enjoy the fiction and fantasy or we wouldn't be reading this blog and its marvelous stories, but behind it all are true tales of hardship and unfairness. In reality power to these women for what they did.

  3. More recently (10 years ago?), Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, spent some time as a cleaner around Westminster and noted that she went totally unrecognised and ignored by people she knew and had interviewed in her role as a journalist.

    As a teenager I was in lodgings with an elderly couple in the late 1950s. Mrs E had been 'in service' in London before she married and had no love for her former employers. Domestic staff were treated with some contempt and were expected to obey arcane rules - eg no so-called followers (boy friends).

    Whilst we enjoy these stories as fantasies, the reality was (and perhaps still is) not something that should be desired for anyone. Not always the case, of course; we had a regular cleaner at home because my parents were running a business and we lived 'over the shop'. As kids the cleaner's word was law and we obeyed her when she was baby sitting. She became a family friend and we loved her dearly but she was always Mrs H both to us and our parents.

    1. Polly Toynbee. Monica Dickens. What is it about descendants of illustrious British families that motivates them to impersonate maids? I am now wondering how many had done it without writing a book afterwards.