Growing up in Pakistan, I lived in a house full of servants. We had a cook, a bearer, a maid, an ayah, a sweeper, a driver, a gardener and a night watchman. Most people we knew had live-in domestic staff. My mother spent half her life mediating their quarrels and the other half dealing with this one’s dysentery and that one’s dowry. She moaned about the servants; the servants groused about her. I didn’t think having servants was in any way unusual or peculiar, let alone wrong.
When I moved to London in the mid-1990s, I was reliably informed by my British friends that servants were not a fact of life. On the contrary, they were extinct. Along with the Great House, they had gone into a decline after the first world war and bowed out soon after the second.
But having lived in London for 22 years now, I can report that domestic service not only exists, but is thriving. An ageing population and an increase in the numbers of and pressure on working mothers created a need for domestic help that was met by an influx of immigrants. A successful media executive I know, whose husband works in the City, travels frequently for work and employs a nanny, a cleaner and a part-time cook. Her domestic arrangements are not unusual among her high-flying peers. Even less well-paid working couples often rely on someone for domestic help. What the servants are called, though, is a thorny issue.
Obviously the s-word is out. So too is “maid”. Nanny is still fine, but only if active child care is involved. So what, then, do you call the “lady who does” for you? I realised how acute the problem was when an English friend related how, on discovering moths in her cupboard, she had turned the house upside down with the help of her…her… her… She blushed as she struggled to find the appropriate noun. “Cleaner?” I suggested. No, she said. Anna did far more than just clean (Anna also does the laundry and cooks occasionally). To describe her as a mere cleaner was disrespectful. Housekeeper, then? Well, yes, except that housekeepers supposedly live in, while Anna popped in three days a week. And housekeepers are associated with grand establishments like Downton Abbey or Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley, where they directed a battalion of maids. So it sounded a tad pretentious to claim that you had a housekeeper when you lived in a flat and she was your sole employee and part-time too.
Whether they are called au pairs, “the lovely girl who comes in”, or my favourite, “part of the family”, the semantic awkwardness reveals genuine angst in the British psyche about the morality of employing domestic help. The old master-servant relationship with its connotations of paternalism and subservience belongs to the long-dead past. It has no place in a progressive, egalitarian society in which everyone is expected to look after their own homes and families. Employing domestic workers, however attractive their emoluments or secure their rights, is therefore freighted with guilt. So while it is entirely legitimate to criticise laziness in juniors in the office (who may well be paid a fraction of what you pay your housekeeper) to rebuke your housekeeper for not tidying the house is grossly impolite. It is also perfectly acceptable for a migrant to change your elderly parents’ soiled clothes in a care home but it is embarrassing to have one clean your oven. The guilt, then, is not about inequality. It’s only when that unequal relationship enters your home that it becomes fraught.
One way of managing the discomfort is by minimising contact. A journalist who lives alone in a flat in central London admits that she has never met the person (she thinks it’s a woman) who has cleaned her flat once a week for the past year. She leaves cash on the kitchen table and returns to a spotless home. She likes it that way. No relationship means no guilt. And, voila! No servants.