Reviews

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)[Record]

  • Helen Rogers

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  • Helen Rogers
    Liverpool John Moores University

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 ...

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