Literary servants' vanishing act in the eighteenth century
Volz, Tracy Michelle
Piper, William Bowman
Doctor of Philosophy
The increasing invisibility of servants in the novels of Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, and Jane Austen corresponds to the gradual transition of the master/servant relationship from a paternalistic to a contractual model in mid to late eighteenth-century England. Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1741) and Tom Jones (1749) illustrate the destabilizing effects of capitalism, individualism, and the formation of the middling class on the paternalistic model, a model in which Fielding was deeply invested. In the paternalistic model the master's authority to govern and the servant's duty to submit are absolute and unquestioned. Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747) first critique and then rearm the paternalistic model. Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison (1753), on the other hand, articulates the contractual model of master/servant relations, which recognizes servants as autonomous wage laborers. Grandison also introduces a new paradigm of domesticity. This new paradigm transfers the management of the household to a housekeeper, an arrangement that frees the master to pursue political and economic interests in the public sphere and allows the mistress to engage in leisure and philanthropic service. Grandison thus redefines the roles and responsibilities of the master, mistress, and servants in order to validate emerging bourgeois assumptions about gender roles, family, and class distinctions. Austen adopts Richardson's new domestic paradigm, but she moves even further in the direction of servant as paid commodity rather than as protected member of the household. In Mansfield Park, for example, she revisits Pamela in order to show the dangers of blurring class boundaries. Even more noteworthy, however, is Austen's use of rhetorical strategies that are designed to push servants to the social periphery. Austen exploits servants as visible, class-bound commodities that signal their superiors' social status, but she renders servants invisible as subjects in order to legitimize the emerging and vulnerable middling class as it strives to establish itself as a new source of social and moral order.