France – The Domestic Help

OUR neighbours have adopted the word ” comfortable” without, at least in an insular sense, acclimatizing the thing. And here it may be as well to mention that whilst Gallicizing this adjective they were but borrowing what belonged to them. Confortable, naturalized by the French Academy in 1878, is a derivative of the English “comfortable,” but “comfortable ” in its turn is a derivative of the old French verb conforter—to comfort spiritually or morally, to impart courage. Thus Corneille wrote, ” Dieu conforta cette ame desolée,” ” God comforted that desolate soul.”

Le confortable, now so frequent on French lips, is used strictly in a material sense, implying the conveniences of life and the enjoyment of well-being generally. How widely standards of material comfort differ in the two countries is forcibly brought home to us by the condition of the domestic help. In France both sexes betake themselves to household work much more readily than with us. The valet de chambre, or chamberman, is wholly unknown on this side of the water. That domestic service is popular, the enormous number of young French-women who seek situations here as nursemaids and ladies’ maids abundantly proves. Expatriation is not only distasteful to the French mind, it is positively loathsome ; yet the supply of French domestic servants must be considerably in excess of the demand. And it is by no means English comfort that attracts. Provided these reluctant strangers within our gates get good wages and good food, they are utterly indifferent to what are looked upon as absolute necessaries by their English fellows. Paradoxically enough, servants’ comfort is the last thing thought of in democratic France. The cosy, curtained, carpeted sitting-room of our own cooks and housemaids, the sofa on which they can stretch weary limbs, the bedrooms furnished every whit as comfortably as their employers, the bathrooms at their disposal—all these are non-existent ; and so ineradicable is force of habit that I doubt very much if the introduction of any would be much appreciated.

In private hotels and the more spacious flats of Paris servants sleep under the master’s roof ; they have also a room for meals called l’office, but in nowise answering to our servants’ hall or sitting-room. The office is a bare, uncarpeted, uncurtained apartment, containing long table and upright chairs, against the walls being huge linen presses and cupboards containing china and cutlery. But the bonne, or maid-of-all-work, in even a fair-sized and expensive flat, lives under conditions that Miss Slowboy would have found intolerable. I speak with the authority of oft-renewed experience, having stayed in many boarding-houses and private flats in the eighth and seventeenth arrondissements, both handsome, modern, and recherché quarters. The kitchens could only be called mere slips ; to dignify them by any other name were a misnomer. Just room had been allowed for two chairs, on which the one or two servants could sit down to meals, no more. But if comfort was out of the question downstairs, equally absent was it from the attic where they slept in the roof, stiflingly hot in summer, bitterly cold during winter, and, worse of all, tiny compartment of a thickly populated beehive. Not only are domestic servants, thus housed, but shop assistants and others, with what dire results we may imagine.

” Terrible indeed is the condition of country girls who come to Paris as maids-of-all-work,” a Parisian friend observed to me the other day. ” Drudging from morning till night, half a day’s holiday once a month, no other holidays throughout the year ; most often shut out of their employer’s flat at night. This class is much to be pitied. But come to Paris these girls will, tempted by better wages.”

And the daughter of this lady, being shown, on her visit to England, the comfortable bedroom and cosy, carpeted, curtained kitchen, with easy-chair of an English “general,” could hardly believe her eyes. I have said elsewhere our neighbours of all classes are very indifferent to what in England is called comfort. Details regarded as strict necessaries here, over the water are luxuries, indulgences, often fads.

On the other hand, domestic servants in France enjoy a laisser aller unknown with ourselves. Take the matter of uniform, for instance. The scrupulously neat black dress with speckless white apron and coquettish cap of our parlourmaids, the neat prints of our housemaids, the white dresses of our nursemaids, could never be attained by French housewives. If their domestic staff, according to insular notions, has a good deal to complain of as far as comfort goes, this comparative ease and unceremoniousness is doubtless an adequate compensation. A femme de chambre who helps the manservant in the housework, and at the same time acts as ladies’ maid, dresses precisely as she pleases. She may be very particular or the reverse ; no notice is taken of her personal appearance. The scrupulosity exacted of our neat-handed Phyllises would drive Jeanne or Marie mad. Nor is nonchalance confined to dress and outward nicety. Accustomed as they are to make themselves at home, French servants must find the atmosphere of an English home somewhat chilling. The free and easy existence on the other side of the Channel is much dearer to them than the comforts with which they are surrounded here. “Liberty, equality, fraternity ” is a watchword that applies to the tongue as well as to laws and liberties in France. The privilege of making as much noise as one pleases is much more valued than that of spacious dining-rooms, easy-chairs, and comfortable sleeping accommodation.

In country houses I should say matters remain much as they were when Arthur Young made his wonderful tour of France a hundred and fifteen years ago. The woman servant’s bedroom is often a mere niche in the kitchen. Dear old Justine of Burgundian memory ! Many a time have I seen you perform your simple toilette for mass undisturbed by the passing to and fro of mistress, master, young master, and guest. Justine’s bedroom was a little chamber in the kitchen wall, rather an alcove a trifle wider than the recess of recumbent statue in church or cathedral. Now, the kitchen led to the back door, and the back door opened on to the high-road a stone’s throw from church and village. It was, indeed, the most frequented portion of the house. Here the gentlemen prepared for their day’s chase in the forest, and here the household assembled on Sunday morning before starting in a body for church.

The midday meal would be left to cook itself, so, having carefully deposited her potatoes in the wood embers, and her potée or savoury mess of meat and vegetables on the hob, Justine would step on to her bed, and unceremoniously don her black stuff gown, clean mob cap and kerchief, exchange carpet slippers for well-blacked shoon, and even sometimes replace one pair of coarse white stockings by another. No one paid any attention whatever to the dear blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked, childishly simple old thing close upon seventy, whose life from childhood upwards had been spent in the family. For many years Justine’s wages had been £6 yearly ; this sum gradually increased to £5, I dare say New Year’s gifts making up £5 more. But at £10 the wages stopped, and so well had Justine husbanded her resources that regularly as her employers she received her dividend in State rentes.

It would have been interesting to learn the sum-total of Justine’s earnings during her long service. A few years ago the faithful old servant went to her rest, dying under her master’s roof, her hard-earned savings going to a somewhat unsatisfactory daughter—alas! a much too common story in France. The mere fact of hoarding is often the only enjoyment of the hoarder. Justine belonged to a type fast disappearing. It may be said, indeed, that the faithful old servants Balzac delighted to portray —the Nanons, Gasselins, and Mariottes—are already obsolete. Even in Justine’s days bonnets were fast superseding the traditionary coiffe, and in France, as in England, cooks and housemaids began to be agog for change. I do not know if such is still the case, but twenty-five years ago, in spacious flats of large provincial cities, the servant’s bedroom was often the kitchen. Soon after the Franco-Prussian war I wintered at Nantes with the widow of a late Préfet Besides very large dining and drawing rooms, there were four or five good bedchambers in my hostess’s handsome flat ; yet our nice Bretonne, the cook, slept and performed her toilet in a recess of what was both cook-room and scullery.

As all travellers in France know, the peasants have often four-posters in their kitchens—these of enormous proportions, and placed in alcoves, two sometimes facing each other. The habit has doubtless arisen partly from the excessive cold of French winters, partly, in former days, from fear of marauders. But in the more progressive districts the custom is fast dying out. No rich peasant builds himself a house at the present time without adding good airy bedrooms. More particularly is pride taken in a sightly staircase, a feature of domestic architecture formerly represented by the outside ladder leading to hayloft or harness-room.

A good-natured indifference to what is called comfort in English eyes characterizes French country life generally. Folks so far from being fastidious about themselves are not likely to pamper their households. A stockman boarded by wealthy landowners I know, shares the sleeping accommodation of his beeves, having for bedstead a wooden shelf adjoining the neat-house ; for bed, plenty of straw. Alike men and women servants kept in large farmhouses perform their ablutions at the pump—hardly, perhaps, with the thoroughness and gusto of Trooper George !

Once more, to recall the immortal picture-gallery, I may mention that even France, the country above all others “rich in all-saving common sense,” has its Mrs. Jellabys. One philanthropic lady I knew made over her considerable fortune to the town she inhabited, constituting herself a municipal annuitant. The property was to be ultimately laid out in a training farm and dairy school for Protestant and Catholic orphan girls. It happened that a newly engaged lady companion and housekeeper suggested the desirability of water-jugs and hand-basins for the indoor servants—cook, housemaid, and man-of-all-work, who waited at table, drove the brougham, and made himself generally useful. The benevolent chatelaine at first laughed the notion to scorn. ” Toilette services for domestics ! Whoever heard of such a thing ! ” she cried, finally allowing herself to be inveigled into the startling innovation. This happened twenty years ago, but I have no doubt that in out-of-the-way country places the primitiveness of Madame G ‘s arrangements might still be matched.

One side of this general laisser aller in France would be much appreciated by many housewives here. There is no punctilious differentiation of labour among French servants—at least, none to be compared with that prevailing in England. The scrupulosity of our ladylike Ethels and

Mabels in black dresses and white streamers is wanting ; but, on the other hand, Louise and Pauline are much less fussy, stand less upon their dignity, and in emergencies prove more useful, being generally able to turn their hands to anything. Again, Louise and Pauline are less ambitious, exacting, and flighty. They do not require fixed hours for pianoforte or mandoline lessons, cycling, or walks with young men. Indeed, etiquette is as strict among well-conducted women servants as among ladies moving in society. A respectable French girl occupying a good place would never dream of going to a music-hall or any other place of entertainment with her betrothed only ; some member of her family or friend must accompany them. And the lover of a well-conducted maidservant in France is invariably her betrothed no mere hanger-on, changed on the slightest provocation. Sober of dress and behaviour, by no means wedded to routine, usually excessively obliging, the French bonne or femme de chambre often possesses qualities that compensate for English fastidiousness and attention to detail. But it is in the essential, the palmary characteristic of the nation that domestic servants shine. Not for pleasure’s sake, not in order to dress according to the very latest fashion, not that the eyes of some amorous swain may be dazzled, does ,a Louise or a Pauline put up with what is ofttimes excessively laborious service. One object, and one only, is ever before their eyes, those of a marks-man no more intently fixed upon the target. These deft-handed, brisk French girls, fortunately for themselves, are utterly without sentimentality or false pride. Their dream is eminently practical, their life’s aim, not the stockingful of their ancestors, but instead a respectable account with that universal banker of French folks—the State. Very likely, as in Justine’s case, saving for saving’s sake may be the only reward of lifelong drudgery. Between virtues and foibles the partition as often as not is a mere Japanese wall–a sheet of thread-paper. Frugality degenerates into avarice ; the inestimable quality of thrift becomes sordidness.

Here is a telling instance in point. A few years ago the châtelaine of a fine chateau in northern France took me for a day or two to her winter residence in the provincial capital. A former woman servant, now elderly, acted as caretaker of the spacious hotel, vacating it when the family returned in November. ” You know France so well that you will easily believe what I am going to tell you,” observed my hostess. ” Yonder good woman has property bringing in two hundred pounds a year, yet for the sake of earning a little more to add to it she takes charge of our house throughout the winter, living absolutely alone and doing what work is necessary.”

In England a superannuated cook or housekeeper so situated would, of course, settle down in a tiny semi-detached villa, keep a neat maid, and sit down to afternoon tea in a black silk gown. Other countries, other ideals ! Although the Balzacian types have all but disappeared, good servants here and there grow grey in good places. A stay of ten, fifteen, or even twenty years under the same roof is not unknown. And the criterion of a good place is the facility it affords for putting by ; comfort, leisure, holidays count for very little. Wages, New Year’s gifts, and perquisites stand before every other consideration. The lightening of M. Thiers’ herculean task in paying off the Prussian war indemnity is generally attributed to the peasant. But the amount of money invested by domestic servants must be colossal. I should accredit cooks and housemaids, footmen and valets de chambre, with a large share of that astounding settlement. Many a Tilly Slow-boy, even a Marchioness, doubtless had a hand in the patriotic scoring-off. Let us, then, not too harshly judge a weakness that English people, alas ! are guileless of—namely, care over-much for the morrow.