Vanity Fair, February 1915
THE COUNTRY SERVANT PROBLEM
An Anguished Word or Two On the Matter of Securing and Retaining Rural Domestics
By Pelham Grenville
HOW dwellers in the city can go about saying that they have a Servant Problem is more than I can understand. When I lived in town, I found life absolutely simple in that respect. I just went around to a good Agency, collected a Norwegian, paid her five hundred dollars a month, or whatever it was, suited my hours to hers, had all the washing done at a laundry, and there I was—on velvet, as you might say.
How different it is in the country. Here in the wilds, the Servant Problem hits you like a dum dum shell from a German howitzer. It isn’t only a question of keeping your maid. It is a question of having her appear at all. I shall not readily forget Miss O’Connor—Julia, to her intimates. She came to us like manna from the sky. She agreed, in the interview, to everything. She liked cooking, loved washing, and counted that day lost when she did not make beds or shake stoves. Moreover, she only demanded a salary of such modest proportions that it would have left us ample for our little necessities and perhaps even for an occasional jaunt to the city. She left our preliminary interview promising to appear again at eight o’clock on Monday morning.
MONTHS have passed since that day, but we have never again set eyes upon the sunshine of Miss O’Connor’s smiles. She sent no word: she wrote no letter: she simply didn’t come. Weeks later we heard by the merest chance that her mother did not want her to “go out” that season.
In these parts it is the mothers who are at the heart of the Servant Problem. They have a habit of doing the family washing on Monday mornings, and the daughters all want to help their maternal parents at their cleansing tasks. Celia, our present maid, lives at home with her mother, and visits us only by day. She is a jewel of the first water. She cooks like a chef and shakes a stove like a Sandow, but it would be a rash man who would bet on the off chance of her arriving here on Monday morning.
It is the old, old story. The fatal fascination of the maternal wash-tub is a little too great for her.
I sometimes have a vision of Celia on a Monday morning. I see her just mounting her bicycle, all ready to come to us! Another moment, and she will be on her way, and all will be joy, jollity, and song. And then through the window floats the strange, seductive scent of wet linen. She sniffs, hesitates, and, hesitating, is lost. The bicycle is wheeled back, and she flies like a homing pigeon to mess about with soap and things, while we, listening for her lightsome step upon the stairs, gradually pass from hope to despair.
OF course, we have our great moments. There is probably no purer joy than that which comes from hearing Celia’s tap on the door just when we have given up hope and resigned ourselves to a maidless day. Once she turned up at ten o’clock, and it was perfectly amazing to see the way the sun came out and the birds began suddenly to sing, as if somebody had pressed a celestial button.
Celia is older than most of the maids out here. They all seem to believe in starting their professional careers early. They combine them with school. I remember how madly we rushed about the country last October in search of an Italian girl of whom we had heard. It transpired, on enquiry, that she was twelve years old. I once came home and found a tiny child toddling about the kitchen. After I had given her candy and hunted out a picture-book for her to look at and offered to play Bears or Red Indians with her, and wondered which of the neighbors’ little tot she might be, I discovered that it was this child to whom I was about to pay six dollars a week for cooking my meals and cleaning my house.
THEY manage all these things better in British India. Sometimes, before Celia came to us, after I had shaken the stove and taken the cinders out into the garden and fed the animals and washed the dishes and mopped the kitchen-floor and swept the living-rooms and made the beds and got in wood from the cellar (which, for the convenience of the occupant, is situated outside the house) and carried in a pail-full of coal and settled down for a quiet smoke and found that I had forgotten the coal for the kitchen-range and gone out again and got in the coal for the kitchen-range and settled down for a quiet smoke and found that I had omitted to let the kitten in and gone out again and let the kitten in and settled down for a quiet smoke and found that through an oversight there was no kerosene in the oil-stove and gone out again and brought in kerosene and settled down for a quiet smoke, I would draw my chair closer to my wife’s and say in a reverent sort of way, “Tell me about India.”
And my wife would say, “When I lived in India, we had a butler, an assistant-butler, a cook, an assistant-cook, a sweeper, several grooms, a few gardeners, a dog-boy, a lady’s maid, and a chokrah!”
“What,” I would ask, though knowing quite well and merely wishing to luxuriate in the description, “is a chokrah?”
“A chokrah,” my wife would say, “is an assistant-assistant-butler—a man whose sole duty it is to help the assistant-butler assistant-buttle.”
“And the salaries, the united salaries, of this entire mob?”
“About twenty dollars a month, and they find their own food.”
THAT if you please, is homelife in India.
Why, in these United States the dog-boy would want about that amount a week for himself, and would undertake his arduous duties only on the understanding that he was not expected to have anything to do with looking after the dogs.
As for the assistant-assistant-butler—the imagination simply declines to dwell upon him at all.