After leaving school, village as well as town, girls in a great number of cases are kept at home for a few years by their mothers. This gives them a love of freedom and amusement which singularly unfits them for the discipline of domestic service. It might be a possible bridging of the difficulty if it became usual for each family, according to its position, to keep fewer permanent servants and give, as a matter of course, more outside help, each of a specialised kind, to be got from girls who have lately left school and whose mothers would probably not at all object to their earning a little money and doing outside work - let us say, up to two o'clock. A girl who was a good needlewoman at school might be used once a week to repair linen or to do any other casual mending. I heard lately of a young housekeeper, tired of boys who did their work badly, having obtained excellent assistance from a schoolgirl of sixteen whom she trained to clean boots, knives, and lamps every morning. A beginning of this kind might, I think, greatly increase the much-needed supply, and above all create a means of direct communication between the poor and rich, which is still one of the great wants of the day in spite of all the charitable ladies. Some people would suggest that it might bring infection into the house; but I really think that the risk is no greater than with everything else in London. There is always a proportion of risk - in the street, the 'Underground,' the omnibus, the Zoological Gardens, the bread, the meat, and above all the milk.
A proof of the exceeding difficulty that many have in getting employment is to be seen in the large numbers that exist of those terrible harpies called Registry Offices, the very maintenance of which depends on robbing the poor girls who seek employment just at the moment they can least afford it. I could quote story on story of how six, seven, or eight shillings are taken from a country girl without the smallest return to herself; indeed, in some cases they simply retain any written references which she may have given into their charge at their request. I believe an effort is being made to meet this difficulty by an association called 'The Guild of Registries,' and it certainly appears to be sadly wanted.
A new agency has been lately started on rather different lines in Derby Street, Mayfair, and conducted by three house-stewards who have lived many years at the head of large households. Their idea is that they are perhaps better judges of the kind of servants applying for situations than those with less experience can be. Also they mean to get introductions to clergymen and the heads of schools all over the country, so as to help girls from villages who wish to go into service. The experiment seems to me an interesting one.
Things must still be very wrong when the proportion of people who keep servants is so very small, and that of the poor population so very large, and yet we continually meet with the complaint that servants, especially under-servants, are so difficult to find.
As we get older, we most of us step into shoes we should have vowed in our youth we never would put on, and each one in his generation sees some progress in civilisation which has ruined servants, and feels that good servants are far more rare and difficult to find than they were twenty, thirty, or (say) fifty years ago. Good servants - by which I mean unselfish, devoted human beings - are never likely to be a great glut in the market. But then are extra good, judicious, sensible masters and mistresses so very common?
Of all the deadly-dull subjects of conversation among women, the deadliest is the abuse of servants; and few seem to realise that it is practically self-condemnation, as in the long run bad servants mean bad mistresses, or at any rate mistresses with unsympathetic natures and without the talent to rule firmly but not tyrannically.
When we think of servants' homes and training, and how their youth has been passed, especially in large towns, and how they are suddenly brought to face unaccustomed luxury and high feeding, and to live an exciting life of society among themselves, the ceaseless wonder to me always is that servants are as good as they are, and keep as 'straight' as they do, more especially as they are very often set a bad example by the people they serve. In large households where there are many - and consequently idle - menservants, keeping up a high standard of morality is hopeless, or at least very difficult. The constant absence from home so common to-day is one of the great causes of unsatisfactory establishments.
Under-servants in moderate-sized houses are the ones that excite my pity. It is always 'the girl' who is to do this and that, the half-up and half-down drudge who has two or three people who think they have an absolute right over her; or 'the boy' who is to have all work and no play. It is on the same principle, I suppose, as the 'fag' at school. 'I had to do it once, so now I will make someone else do the same.' Petty love of power and cruelty is so inherent in human nature! As was recounted some time ago in the 'spectator,' 'I'll learn you to be a toad!' - the remark of a small urchin as, stone in hand, he eyed the offending reptile.
One of the many causes of disappointment about servants is, that those people who treat them with kindness and consideration expect in return more gratitude than the circumstances admit.
I remember a friend who had been good to a little Swiss nurserymaid, and reproached her for leaving her to go to another situation with slightly higher wages. The girl put out her hands, shrugged her little shoulders, and said: 'Mon Dieu! madame, que voulez-vous? J'aiquitté ma mère pour cela!' How true it was! And not only her mother, but her green Swiss valley, with the beautiful sunlit mountains all round - to live in London with its smoke and its darkness! My friend was convinced, and said no more.