‘Life below Stairs’ by Alison Maloney

The idea of domestic servants and their relationship with the masters is superficially romanticized not in the least due to period dramas, such as ‘Downton Abbey’ or Victorian masterpiece theater. In such fictionalized stories, the social dynamics between the classes are often bowdlerized or beautified, in addition to the romanticization of the working class as though to neutralize class antagonism in fear of marring a lofty literary theme. That said, ‘Life Below Stairs’ by Alison Maloney is a documentary of the real people who had to find themselves in servitude of their betters and their live-to-tell accounts of what it was like to be servants.

While reading the book, I could not help but think that the professional domestic service in the capacity of maids, footmen, and butlers was not so much different from today’s social dynamics of at-will employees who provide their labor to employers for livelihood. Of course, the labor conditions and workers’ rights have been considerably improved, thanks to continuing reformation of workers’ compensations. However, the essence of the exchange of labor for necessities of life and the nature of employment is often precarious and insecure on the whims and caprice of businessmen and women. For example, recent union movements of Starbucks employees have prompted the company to close down under the pretext of low sales or redundancy. It betokens that the company will not tolerate such defiant action by the employees who provide their service in pure physical labor and mental exertions in catering to the needs of customers daily. Servants in the Victorian and Edwardian eras were employed chiefly by the middle-class bourgeoise who regarded keeping servants as a status symbol in the emulation of their upper aristocratic betters. In the States, servitude equated the slavery in the South, which was also maintained by merchant and business classes. Although I am not a proponent of aristocracy, aristocrats knew better how to treat their underlings because the need for servants arose from the necessities of keeping their estates and domesticity, not from a flash of ostentatious wealth that their jealous middle class was envious of.

I envision myself as a housemaid in one of the early Edwardian eras (1900-1930), working from 6:00 am till 11:00 pm for a mistress whose temper is mercurial like Hera. That would be miserable with no weekend offs and mandatory church going with her. Then I feel okay to live in this moment of history even if my mistress boss is a modern-day bourgeoisie woman who wants her underlings to do thngs in her way because thanks to labor law, I only work from nine to five with saturdays an sundays to myself. Thank God for that.

Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands – book review

What we know as history takes a winning and popular side reflecting mass psychology because a winner writes it, and it is our human nature to win. Perhaps that is why the glare of Florence Nightingale eclipses the brilliance of Mary Seacole. Written in 1857, Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands is a vivid autobiographical touchy-feely account of one remarkable Mary Seacole who resisted herself being invisible and manifested her existence with a story to tell.

Seacole was a healer and entrepreneur born of a Scottish father and a Jamaican mother. Her medicinal knowledge and business acumen distinguished her from her contemporary peers. They often showed discrediting and unappreciative regard to such achievements and her person, not least because of their bias. Seacole identified herself as a British with pride and patriotism, especially when confronting Americans whom she observed to be egregiously racists with unruly behaviors. She took pride in feminine propriety and cultural sophistication, which made her look audaciously flamboyant to those who determined to ignore her virtue, one of whom was Florence Nightingale.

In the wake of the Crimean War, Seacole was imbued with the flames of patriotism and humanity to volunteer for Nightingale’s nurse corps. However, Nightingale and her nurses kept refusing her aspiration, calling her intention dubious because they suspected her setting up the famous Seacole’s Hotel at the battlefield by providing sensual comfort to soldiers with her women employees. Her noble courage and abundant charity were unreciprocated in non-institutionalized racist 19th-century zeitgeist that paved the way to systematic 20th-century scientific racism. It perceived non-white women as no more than sexual subjects of imprudence and passion. Being dark, Seacole was not seen for the flame of Nightingale’s candles.

Had it not been for Nightingale, would Seacole have been regarded as the angel of the Crimean War? Or was it because of Nightingale that Seacole became known? I think that would be harsh undue judgment for both great women. It would be a typical social dynamic of praising one to the detriment of the other. Yet, I believe Seacole deserves recognition for what she did and who she was worth noting. To me, Seacole embodies Queen Elizabeth I’s Tilbury Address that though she might have a woman’s body, she had a king’s stomach and heart. That says it.