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Carolyn Steedman. Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. ISBN: 9780521874465. Price: US$91/£45 (Hb); ISBN: 9780521697736. Price: US$32.99/£17.99 (Pb)

  • Helen Rogers

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  • Helen Rogers
    Liverpool John Moores University

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At the heart of this absorbing book is a story that Carolyn Steedman insists will surprise us. As industrial society was taking shape in the Calder dales, a very human drama unfolded. In 1802 the unmarried servant Phoebe Beatson gave birth to her daughter in the house of her master, John Murgatroyd, curate of Lingards-Cum-Slaithwaite. The clergyman did everything he could to persuade the father, George Thorp, to marry Beatson: “I wanted an answer whether she must bear a Bastard or no” (177). When Thorp refused to do the decent thing, Murgatroyd retained Beatson in his service, taking great interest and care in both mother and “her lovely Child” (184). On his death in 1806, he left the majority of his estate to his “faithful servant,” amounting to almost £1000 in property and kind (51). Rewarded for a lifetime’s dutiful labour, Beatson married and settled, presumably, into respectable anonymity. Why this story should surprise us is the central concern of this book.

The story surprises, Steedman insists, because these “unusual” characters did not act as their culture expected. The book explores how they could “buck so many of the trends that their historians have seen them – people like them – enacting” (1). As sexual respectability was yoked more and more to marriage, how could George Thorp resist pressure to make an honest woman of Beatson? Why would an eighty-year old clergyman effectively adopt this illegitimate family and ensure their comfortable independence, though legally entitled to dismiss a pregnant domestic? Destitution and ignominy should be the fate of the abandoned woman, according to sentimental melodrama, though Beatson, pregnant at thirty seven, scarcely fits the role. Feminist scholarship, argues Steedman, has rarely concerned itself with survivors like Beatson, but has instead succumbed to the seduction narrative, relating “a template for eighteenth-century female sexuality, two parts passivity, one part victimhood, one part rape, by which we might depict the pregnant servant maid” (177). What did love and labor mean in this seemingly odd little household and what can the relationships built around these tell us of “the minute shifts and stratagems of feeling that countless individuals undertook, in making themselves subjects of modernity” (1)?

The answers to those questions, where Steedman finds them, lie largely in Murgatroyd’s copious writings: his daily jottings, essays and sermons, marginalia in his extensive reading. The story teased from these sources is read alongside and against two epic myths located in the West Riding. Steedman’s interest in Beatson’s experience was prompted by the absence of the servant’s story in Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and by the failure of marxism to see the servant as anything other than the receptacle of false consciousness. One of the triumphs of Steedman’s book is to demonstrate that the master-servant relationship does indeed have a history that is integral to the economic and legal developments traced by Thompson. While Steedman can track some of these changes and Murgatroyd’s responses to them through his writings, the motivations of Thorp and Beatson remain elusive, just as they elude the documentary record. To penetrate the “psychology of service” at this historical juncture, Steedman turns to that other epic history of the West Riding, Wuthering Heights (1847), claiming both Emily Brontë and its central narrator, the servant Nelly Dean, as historians of the making of the modern world.

In the late eighteenth century, the legal construction of the domestic changed, with possession of servants designated a luxury, subject to taxation. The master-servant relationship was no longer a private matter but one in which the military-fiscal state had an interest. Hitherto, servants were defined as belonging to the master’s household and family but now they acquired a more autonomous identity as workers whose skills and activities were carefully categorised, costed and regulated. The law recognised them, if obliquely, as legal persons. Servants had other limited rights in respect of the poor laws, for the fulfilment of a year’s service conferred the right of settlement, an entitlement removed in 1834 by the New Poor Law. How these statutory provisions affected master-servant relationships and especially servants’ understanding of their labour, rights and sense of self is part of the book’s enquiry, for after 1777, servants, as well as the state, could calculate their labor and their time more precisely. Yet what constituted domestic service was by no means clear: Beatson was a worsted outworker as well as servant and Murgatroyd noted her spinning in his diaries alongside her other tasks. What effects did such an arrangement of labor have for their relationship and indeed other human relationships at Lingards-cum-Slaithwaite? The rhythms of labor forged not only class identities, as Thompson claimed, but also manners and feelings, including love itself (44).

Proletarian behaviour thus cannot be accounted for exclusively by economic drives, contends Steedman, for “behaviour and human relationships themselves have the power to shape lives. These relationships and behaviours will be rooted in ‘local vernaculers’ – to do with the hills you walk, the wool you process, the God you believe in” (26-7). Anglicanism was part of the local vernacular which Thompson failed to acknowledge. One of the strengths of Steedman’s study is that she brings to life Murgatroyd’s faith. Her deeply sympathetic account of his sensibility is prompted by the curate’s outsider status; such figures animate all her writing. A “galloper,” paid to do other men’s sermons, teaching to augment his income, he was never rewarded with a full living. Like Beatson, he “worked for a living”; his outsider status may have motivated his generosity to his servant. Murgatroyd was far from a hegemonic presence: “He was always puzzled when the administrative state came knocking at his door to deliver a tax return for the enumeration of Phoebe Beatson as domestic servant, or to tell her where to go for her settlement examination by a magistrate” (109). He drew eclectically from seventeenth-century divines to Gil Blas and Tom Jones, and believed in Judgment and the Atonement; but fundamentally, his was a religion of the heart: “my Teaching has been plain. . . – it has come from my Heart” (110). Where so many have concluded that Anglicanism preached “contentment, resignation and the formularies of the church, to simple unlettered people,” he showed “a kind of shrewd respect for the varieties of woolcoming and weaving. . . congregations. . . and an earnest desire to tell them things that they needed to know, to get through the next week and the rest of their life, on a journey heavenward” (112). Love for children was an imperative and this contributes towards another important claim of the book: that love for a child can be a model for other kinds of love. Murgatroyd, argues Steedman, fell in love with Beatson’s daughter. But surely he loved his dutiful servant also, for labor itself can both constitute and generate other kinds of loving: “Love for babies is born of washing and feeding–and loving them. A baby was deeply implicated in what went on in Lingards-cum-Slathwaite in 1802; the loveableness of that baby provided a structure by which to express other forms of love” (192).

We cannot know whether Beatson loved her employer or what he meant to her. Which brings us to Wuthering Heights, which Steedman tells us is, among other things, “a social history of service and a pychology of servitude” (195). While the novel is ignorant of the legal ramifications surrounding service examined by Steedman, it depicts, she suggests both traditional and modern types of servant. Joseph is the old type; he sees the Heights as his home and will never leave. By contrast, Nelly sees herself primarily as a worker, like Zillah, who tells her cannily, “You’re saving, and I’m doing my little all that road.” For Nelly and Zillah, service is a job, a contract, not a “relation.” There are limits to Nelly’s love: “Nelly is the modern type, flitting over the hills from one hiring to another, calculating her wages with a very nice reckoning of what she will and will not do, and when and whom she’ll love” (215). This is an important rejoinder to the many critics who judge Nelly the co-opted voice of class and patriarchal power; yet the distinction between Nelly and Joseph is too forced. Nelly certainly has her limits, will not be pushed, but she continues to see her labour in familial and affective as much as contractual terms: the children of the Heights are “her children” to boss and fuss over. Indeed her slightly arched disapproval of Zillah may be that she is rather too calculating. Nelly’s understanding of love emphasizes obligation and reciprocity, neighborliness and sympathy, labor and gratitude. If these values are part of her “psychology of servitude,” they also underlay Murgatroyd’s religion of the heart and might have suggested to Steedman something of the bonds of love and labor that connected the Anglican curate and his serving maid. But neither Nelly, nor Beatson, have to be a “modern servant” (215) to draw together Steedman’s story, for part of her argument is that people do not become “modern” all of a sudden, because of a new legal framework, or changes in worsted production, for people inhabit ideological formations in complicated, inconsistent and contradictory ways: “the gaps and spaces in any ideological system” enable “people to find their own thoughts on the difference between what is, and what is asserted to be” (223).

Steedman’s book is an important contribution to a growing body of work which is finally putting the servant in the historical picture. But ultimately it is unclear quite what Steedman wants to make of her story. She confesses, perhaps a little disingenuously, that she can’t quite “explain why things fell out as they did” and that she “cannot make this story enter The Making of the English Working Class” (228). This is somewhat of an evasion given that Thompson’s study has been the focus of critique. Surely the analysis of the statutory changes in the master-servant relationship and their implications for the worsted districts could have been integrated more conclusively with Thompson’s account of the repeal of paternalist legislation and proletarianization. Steedman concedes that Beatson’s lucky fate does not “obviate the larger drama of profit, accumulation and class, by which servants, fictional and real, are bastardized. All of this story is only about getting by” (230). How people muddled through is absolutely worth telling but in the end we still have to explicate that “larger drama” and Steedman might have been more generous towards Thompson, who at least attempted to account for exploitation and loss. Steedman turns instead, very confusingly, to the Herderian mode of interpretation she finds in Wuthering Heights: “that the explanation for things as they are is that they are – or were – as they are; the explanation for them is that they must be; events carry with them their own eventuality” (228). This is not helpful.

All micro histories need to relate the particular to the general if the reader is not to be left thinking, “so what?.” But perhaps Steedman could connect her story to wider processes if she did not think it so extraordinary. She claims that Murgatroyd and Thorp “were unusual men” and insists on their “oddness” (10) because of all her reading in modern history. Yet this history contains its own silences, distortions and projections. Thorp may have been all too typical of the men who continued to abandon their offspring long after the Bastardy Clauses were supposed to have solved the illegitimacy problem. Other men and women supported irregular households and informally took responsibility for children who were not their own. Whatever their public pronouncements about fallen women, surely many Christians demonstrated in their actions some of Murgatroyd’s generosity and sympathy, for he was not alone in following the scriptural injunction to observe the reciprocal bonds of master and servant. That mentality did not vanish over night with the onset of industrial capitalism. Perhaps, afterall, the drama enacted at Lingards-cum-Slaithwaite was far more ordinary than we have imagined.

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