"Why do we spend our lives living through them?" The words of the intelligent and frustrated housemaid, Elsie, in the Robert Altman film Gosford Park, remind us of the human potential locked away in the relationship between the British aristocracy and those who served them. Chained by poverty to a social class who both despised and resented them, generations of intelligent working people had their lives moulded by the comings-and-goings of their employers, with the personal lives of both becoming dangerously and unhappily intertwined.
Writing in The Guardian about that "tortuous dynamic", Joe Moran draws upon the rich body of research in In Search of a Past, Ronald Fraser's examination of his own privileged upbringing, to discuss the strange and strained relationship formed through repetitive, under-paid and under-valued domestic labour. Describing the "social performance" of the English manor house depicted by Fraser, Moran posits that the tense and unhappy relationship of service ran both ways, and suggests that the obligations between servant and master as exemplified in Virginia Woolf's dealings with her staff could best be described as co-dependent.
Whilst Upstairs, Downstairs is pulling in audiences as a peak-time period drama, the realities of domestic servitude might be on the edge of a renaissance. Workfare, the government scheme to utilise the free labour of the unemployed by forcing JSA claimants into full-time jobs or be excluded from national insurance schemes, has seen jobseekers put to work as domestic servants, cleaning private homes. Class resentment and exploitation bristles just under the surface; Iain Duncan Smith has accused those demanding a decent day's wage for a decent day's work "job snobs", whilst the government have implemented rules to get around the fact that the Department for Work and Pensions' regulations state that mandatory work schemes must be "for the public good"- by reclassifying private profit as community value. Unpaid internships also drift, foggily, into the arena of domestic life: in his book Intern Nation Ross Perlin describes the accounts of interns compelled to pick up dry-cleaning or go food shopping for their employers-even clearing out their attics. Unpaid and underpaid domestic service for wealthy clients has become more than soft-focus Sunday evening nostalgia: for many, it is becoming an everyday reality.
Visit The Guardian to read Joe Moran's article in full.