“Keep Them in the Path of Duty”: Domestic Advice Manuals and the Servant/Mistress Relationship across Metropole and Colony

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:40 AM
Crystal Ballroom C (Hilton Atlanta)
Fae Dussart, University of Sussex
This paper examines how servants, and the servant/employer relationship were represented within household advice manuals and letters, written by servant employers across metropole and colony in the 19th century. Most of these manuals were written by women, who wrote about household management on the basis of their authority as mistresses of households. Such authors contributed to a discourse situating women within the home as the custodians of all things domestic and investing national and imperial significance in their regulation of domesticity. Manuals relating to Indian household management were published both overseas and in Britain and often included chapters on medicine, childcare and colonial etiquette, as well as advice for engaging and managing ‘native’ servants. Many of the assumptions about ‘native’ character expressed in the Indian manuals resonate with attitudes expressed towards servants in the books published for English households. There are important differences – concern with rituals of deference is less prominent in Indian manuals, while the home is figured as containing a specifically colonial frontier – but also important similarities, not least in terms of the ambivalence with which mistresses in both India and England represented the servant/mistress relationship in such manuals. In this paper it is argued that these books, when placed in context, reflect a trans-imperial ‘structure of feeling’ in terms of 19th century domestic service and the servant/employer relationship. Furthermore, in contributing to a discourse on service and servants such manuals were a part of the process by which the identity of ‘servants’ and ‘mistresses/masters’ as sociocultural groupings were constructed and the terms of conduct for the servant/employer relationship established. The writers of advice literature drew on normative notions of gender and class and used racialising language. In doing so, they contributed to the process by which those categorical distinctions were reified and transformed.