Lucinda Elliot

Servant Heroes in Historical Romance: A Rarity Compared to Servant Heroines

IX: Pamela is Married 1743-4 by Joseph Highmore 1692-1780
IX: Pamela is Married 1743-4 Joseph Highmore 1692-1780 Purchased 1921

It is interesting that one of the unwritten rules of historical romance is that the hero must never be a working class man, let alone a manservant.
This is the more intriguing, because a fair amount of heroines are maidservants. Of course, in that, they follow the steps of the heroine of one of the first romantic novels – Samuel Richardson’s 1748 Pamela.
As a matter of fact, this heroine spends almost no time in doing what a lady’s maid normally did, which was to sew and run errands for her mistress, for the simple fact that her mistress dies in the first paragraph. Instead she spends most of her time winning debates about sexual morality with her arch hypocrite of a master, being abducted, fending off his attempts by fainting, or solemnly writing down the compliments she receives.
However, her status is that of a servant, and that is the point. It is a version of the Cinderella motif, where a powerful man is won over by the physical and moral attributes of a fair damsel of lower social status, and ultimately marries her.
This reward of the virtuous drudge rewarded by a grand marriage was an old theme even in the eighteenth century – but Richardson’s heroine was a new version in that she really was born into the servant class, not a well born girl reduced to being used as one by a wicked stepmother, or whatever.
It is very relevant here to note that in Richardson’s time, a woman took on the status of the man she married: he was her ‘head’. Therefore, a man who married a low born woman elevated her in status. The reverse was not true, however much money the woman might have. In the eyes of the eighteenth century, where women had no separate legal identity after marriage, a woman could not elevate a low born man by marrying him. She would in fact lose her previous status in society’s view, even if she was originally from the gentry.
This is the – probably not generally understood – reason why there cannot be a male Cinderella equivalent in English novels. There can be no fairytale ending with one. A low born hero could work his way up in the world, of course, and such a man might rise from being of the servant class, and even eventually crown his rise in status by marriage to a woman of ‘genteel birth’, but he must put in the effort himself.
There is another aspect, of course: while all romantic heroes do not have to be Alapha males, they do have to have some element of power about them. Working men were historically cut off from power throughout the world. In Britain, where so much of historical romance is set, they did not have the vote until 1870.
This makes for difficulties, at least with the Alpha type of male lead. A romantic hero is supposed to be impressive, to dazzle the heroine not only with this looks and charm, but also with his influence, his status among his peers and all the rest of it. That is rather easier to do if he can fill her with awe as the titled owner of a rambling mansion with a team of devoted servants, with attractive and eligible women throwing themselves at him and a thousand connections…
…Whereas, if he can only offer her a broken chair by a smoky fireplace in a leaky cottage and a nice slice of pease pudding, it becomes a little harder to dazzle…
The working class hero, then, is that much harder to depict as a romantic figure. It can be done, but it takes more work, and it does frankly lead to a level of realism in the story that that many romance readers might find offputting.
When I wrote The Peterloo Affair, my main interest was in recreating the historical injustice of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. However, I hoped to show as well that romantic love is not incompatible with poverty.
For those interested, you can buy the novel here

Peterloo Affair thumbnail

A manservant is even more of a difficult subject for a hero , because of the indignity of serving a master. Heroes are not meant to kowtow to anyone. A footman, for instance, was employed to make life easy for his masters, to wear a fine uniform and wait at table, to bring up the coals, and solemnly to deliver the mail to the master or mistress on an ornamental tray. This is hardly work of the sort that is generally seen as fitting for hero material.
It might be easier to make a hero out of one of the footmen of the first part of the eighteenth century, when they were in fact ‘running footmen’ and a sort of professional athlete. In this era of terribly maintained or non-existent roads, they were hired to run errands at great speed, and at other times, to run in front of the master’s carriage to clear the way. Gentlemen staged races between their footmen, with high stakes placed on them.
It remains true a background of poverty and overcrowding ( even Richardson is realistic to make Pamela usually share a bed – though not willingly with Mr. B) hardly fits in with the fantasy aspect of the story demanded by romance readers.
The Cinderella motif remains perennially popular. From the wildly improbable trials of Pamela at the hands of the would-be rapist Mr. B , on through the haughty but decidedly non-rapist Mr. Darcy’s humbling by the spirited and vulgarly connected Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice onwards, the theme of the socially inferior heroine being courted by a wealthy, aristocratic and hopelessly besotted man is a staple theme in romance.
There are, of course, exceptions. There is, of course, the excellently written former bestseller, Jo Baker’s 2013 varient on Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn.
I haven’t read the criticism, so I couldn’t say how far that is accepted as an historical romance as such. In so far as it is a love story with an upbeat ending, I believe it qualifies as one according to one of the ‘official’ definitions. Still, it is decidedly lacking in the form of romantic gloss, the escapism so beloved of readers of ‘Regency Historical Romance’.
There have been many variants of Pride and Prejudice, invariably from the point of view of characters belonging to the gentry. Longbourn shows the point of view of the servants. As I have noted elsewhere, unlovely realistic details abound. The female lead’s hands are reddened and coarsened by cleaning and by washing soiled laundry. When she first sees the male lead, who is taken on as a general servant, he is wearing a pair of broken shoes with ludicrously flapping soles.
All Pride and Prejudice readers know that Lizzie’s petticoat was ‘three inches deep in mud’ when she went on her hike over the fields to look after Jane at Bingley’s house three miles away –but few have probably bothered thinking about the person who had to launder it. In Longbourn, this is Sarah: ‘If Elizabeth Bennett had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’
And I suspect this brings out the whole problem, presumably, about romance writers centring their novels about servants. A servant performed squalid tasks, and had little privacy and less leisure in which to pursue romantic entanglements. Should s/he be sexually approached by the mistress or master, it was not usually through true love…
Clearly, a servant’s situation varied between households and between posts. Higher servants in wealthy households led a very different life from that of lower housemaid’s in ones of limited means. Eighteenth century commentary is full of resigned references to insolent, underworked footmen.
Exaggerated as these no doubt were, as so often, male servants were still usually better off than the women, if only because they earned more money and did not have to do the washing. A footman who had the luck to be tall and strapping could demand a better wage.
In fact, some young, handsome footmen could live almost as a sort of part time gigolo rather than a menial, if the reminiscences of the vain John MacDonald, as reported in The Life and times of John MacDonald (1790), are to be believed. This is, so far as I know, the only autobiography published by a manservant.
Which brings me round full circle to the love lives of manservants…
While there are far more dukes than drudges featuring as romantic leads in historical romance – a comment on the escapist nature of the genre, given that excluding royals, there were only about 28 dukes in Great Britain in 1790 out of a population of about 10,000,000 – there are exceptions to this.
I did come across this list of romantic novels featuring servants on Goodeads. However, as it includes maidservants as well as manservants , I am not sure how many actually feature a manservant for the male lead. There is also a fair sprinkling of governesses, which is odd, as governesses were never classified as servants, though they were hirelings.
Of course, a certain best selling romance writer of the late Victorian and Edwardian era, a writer of contemporary rather than historical romance – one Charles Garvice –did write about servant heroes in several of his novels. These stalwart, muscular, stoic young men with a reckless gleam in the eye in due course either turn out to be a man of title or heir to one.
That is certainly true of Love, the Tryant (1900), where the heroine Esther Vancourt engages her distant relative, the disguised Sir John Vancourt, as a foreman on the home farm of Vancourt Towers – which is of course, part of his estate. It is also true of Wicked Sir Dare (1917), where the hero disguises himself as a gamekeeper in order to be nearer to his estranged bride. Neither of these, of course, demeans himself by taking on a post that requires servile courtesy. Both work outside, as befits their hale, hearty temperaments.
And on my earlier comments on the social fate of the upper class woman who married a man from the servant class, there is in the classic love story by DH Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the fate of Mellors, who having seduced and impregnated Lady Chatterley, is left at the end training to be a farmer, a rise in social status for him, and a decided drop for Connie.

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