Jane Austen and the Urgent Need for a Footman

Probably around August 1 or so, 2015

The urgent need for a footman (as opposed to the urgent need for a calendar) does seem like a question that Anthony Trollope or Mrs. Gaskell would address far more than Austen would as Austen didn’t dwell on the domestic trivia that we watchers of Downton Abbey so enjoy.  But being at an isolated cabin for a month has made me think about some aspects of 19th-century life, such as it being very useful to have an extra footman.

My family got phones put in the cabins back in 1996 when we got electricity, but not all the cabins on the lake go to the expense.  My friend Joanne across the lake does not have a land line, and her cell works if she happens to be on the dock, pointing the phone toward the inlet that feeds the lake, but she does not spend her entire vacation on the dock imitating the Statue of Liberty. So if I want to invite her to come on a pontoon boat ride, I have to go talk to her in person.

This is not a hardship. Rather than driving  my mother’s big-ass red station wagon the two miles around the lake (or walking),  I go in a 21-year-old golf cart which motors silently (well, the metal frame does rattle a bit) along a tree-lined sandy trail, rarely encountering another person or vehicle.  It can take twenty minutes, usually longer as I detour through the campground to look at people’s tents and RVs.

Early 19th century folk lacked phones, aging golf carts, and big-ass red station wagons.  The gentry would have sent a servant with their messages.  Jane in Pride and Prejudice  becomes ill when walking through the rain to the Bingleys’.  Undoubtedly a footman had to go back through the rain to tell her family.  So why aren’t we worried about him getting ill? Is he going to be able to stay in bed for the next few days if he is smitten? I would guess that he is a great deal busier than Miss Bennet would ever be.

I assume that many of the country families Austen writes about would not have crowds of underutilized servants sitting around the kitchen, waiting to be put on carrier-pigeon duty. If the message is to go to a house two or three miles away and the messenger has to wait for a reply,  he could be absent for several hours, especially if he, like me, decided to tour the campground to look at the tents and RVs.  That could leave a fair amount of domestic work undone . . .  unless of course children from the serving classes were sent, but then I think that the detours would have been lengthy indeed.

At home my neighbor and I share a driveway so our front doors are perhaps 50 steps apart.  When I want to talk to her, I don’t go over there and ring her doorbell, I don’t even telephone her, I send her an email.

Because neither one of us can ever find our footmen.







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One Response to Jane Austen and the Urgent Need for a Footman

  1. Mary says:

    I could use a footman from time to time. I much prefer people to technology.

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