It is said that "there is honour amongst thieves." If not influenced by better and more sacred motives, at least you might be ashamed to degrade yourself to a lower standard than theirs. Yet, rightly or wrongly, young servant girls are accused of being very dishonourable, in being much given to what is called "tittle-tattle," as well as charged with trying hopelessly to look like what they are not. It should be regarded as a point of honour amongst you never to repeat outside the house, nor even in the servants' hall nor kitchen, what you were trusted to hear at your master's table or in your mistress's apartments. Never stop to listen to their conversation (which you might misunderstand if you did), but give your whole attention to your own business. With reference to the respect due to them, to the duty of "not answering again," of abstaining from purloining, and "showing all fidelity," I refer you to the words of Divine inspiration, which have given no "Uncertain sound" in their directions both to masters and servants. Having known of several instances within the circle of my own family and connections of those who have lived from five-and-twenty to upwards of fifty years in the same family, deservedly beloved and respected, I know how to appreciate the faithful and high-principled amongst them, and am ready to believe in the extensive existence of such, in the class to which you, my readers, belong. Strive early to emulate such bright examples, and ever remember that amongst the most humble in birth and circumstances there is such a thing as "Nature's nobility" – the highest sentiments of honour and feelings of propriety, combined with the greatest humility and modesty of demeanour, and of that good sense which makes a man or woman know and live according to their natural position in life; and are placed in that position of trust and trial only as a temporary training for a state of far higher existence.
"Be thou faithful in a few things, and I will make thee ruler over many things."
To the mistresses of families I would now make two or three suggestions. The inefficiency of domestic servants, the rare examples of grateful and loving service rendered, the silly vanity which induces ignorant young girls to ape a position they can never attain and thus even throw a doubt on their moral character – all these points form subjects of perpetual fault-finding, sour your temper and prejudice you against the whole class.
Doubtless you cannot "make bricks without straw," and you have much cause for dissatisfaction. A servant professes to know all the duties and method of performing, for which she expects all the wages you may be induced to give, with all the comforts of a home, and you discover that she possesses but a very superficial idea of any of them. She wastes your provisions perhaps by bad cookery or forgetfulness of them; articles destroyed by neglect of repair, and every description of disaster and annoyance. We all suffer in a greater or less degree, paying honest wages for dishonest services. Alas! "That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered."
But if we feel so keenly our own wrongs we should apply ourselves all the more zealously to redress them; and if we judge the shortcomings and misdoings of our maid-servants, let us take care that our own conduct be absolutely above reproach.
If, as a general rule, the young domestic servants of the present day are inferior as regards both their efficiency and manners, as well as devoted fidelity to their predecessors, the fault is not always and entirely to be laid to their charge. Those whether employ them very frequently show themselves utterly ignorant of their own duties towards them, and the great responsibility which lies on their own shoulders. Apart from all higher motives, the old saying, "Noblesse oblige" seems little to influence their deportment towards them. There is a petty and most vulgar meanness in the ostentatious way in which ladies of no real position in society themselves will order about their attendants as if they were only automatons, and not persons under their benevolent care and wise judicious training. The more or less uneducated need as careful and considerate training as children.
Every household should remember that by a Divine decree it is the mistress who is to "guide the house," and the duties which this sacred charge involves are to be gravely accepted and prayerfully carried out. It is not to be supposed that she has only to give her servants certain orders, and to scold or dismiss them if they be not fulfilled. In a very extended sense, she has the souls and bodies, health, training, and the present and eternal well-being of those under her authority placed in her charge; or, to say the least, within her influence – an influence for good or evil for which she will assuredly have one day to render an account.
The service which she buys with gold may be rendered for love. How often has this been realised when reverses have changed the order of the household, and the faithful servant has selected to share the scant necessaries of life with the beloved and revered heads of the family; not grudging the least extra service that seems to outweigh the gold in the balance set against it, but, thenceforth, as the tried and tested and deservedly trusted friend, clinging with affection and respect to her unfortunate master and mistress?
But money alone will not purchase fidelity like this. "If a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned." Of course there are the naturally high-principled, as well as the God-fearing, amongst little-educated people, as well as amongst those who have had the benefit of the best intellectual culture. Faithful service, even in little matters – out of sight, perhaps, and unappreciated – will sometimes be found here, even when mistress – who pays her servant, and gives her a home – is not to be classed among "the good and gentle." But "as a man sows so shall he reap" is a rule of very general application. If kindness and consideration, supplementing honest payment of service, do not always meet a just reward at the hands of our servants, so we have no right to expect a cordial, hearty, cheerful service for a cold return in money only.
To claim unquestioning obedience – a respectful address and answers – a suitable style of dress – a strict conformity to the hours and rules of the house – and of the performance of the work, in conformity with your own directions – are all requirements perfectly within the limits of your rightful authority. But be careful to give each servant, before her entrance into your family, the complete list of the rules by which she is to be guided; so that if she should demur at any of them, she may do so at once. In the same way, make her acquainted with the amount of rest and recreation you can allow her; and after her ready agreement to your proposals, then let her find that – strict as you may be on certain points – you are no niggard in kindly consideration for her, and that her pleasures are given with an ungrudging hand. Above all things, remember that if you lose your temper in speaking to her, you lower yourself in her estimation. Speak firmly, and gravely, if need be; but do not forget yourself for a moment, or lower your dignity by saying anything in haste that you would not like to hear repeated in the servants' hall as a specimen of an ill-governed temper. Such outbreaks, however justly you may have been offended, may make your servants fear, but never respect you.
In reference to the recreations to which I alluded, a few suggestions should be given. Going out after dark is by no means include amongst them, unless it to be to take turn with other servants in going to church or chapel. Let no Sundays pass without sending each servant to a place of worship once in the day. They need out-of-door air, as well as their mistress. Send them for their weekly outing while the sun shines, or at least that the daylight lasts, to see their families and friends, or do their shopping. Do not grudge a cup of tea "once in a way," to the relative or friend who may come to see them when the chief work of the day is over.
Supply them always with some nice book – such as a volume of magazines (for instance, our own paper, the Sunday at Home, or the Leisure Hour), for, apart from the kindliness of the act, it is your duty to educate their minds; and in so doing you are also training them to be more efficient servants.
Some little time should always be allowed – if not every day, at least once in the week – for their own needlework, the necessary mending and making of their clothing and caps. It is equally for your own satisfaction that they should be accorded some time for this, as otherwise their appearance will be unsuitable to your house; and sitting up late at night – as many are obliged to do – is most undesirable on every account.
Remember that while all familiarity should be avoided, there is a quiet dignified politeness of manner and mode of address that invariably calls forth a politeness of response. Do not allow your self-respect and self-assertion to border upon an ostentatious demeanour. You will never elevate your position in their eyes by so doing. The lady-like politeness of your own manner will invariably be reflected to some extent in that of the servant whom you address.