In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and at the turn of the twentieth, more women were employed in domestic service than in any other area. Yet the lives of servants present a difficulty for social historians, because they rarely left written records; their presence in households is more often indicated by their inclusion on a census, in household accounts, or even complaining letters written by a mistress to her friends. The question of their relationship with their employers is awkward too – in some cases it was abusive, in others it was a deeply affectionate union of mutual dependency. Eluding generalisations or even definitions, they have slipped through the cracks of modern historical narratives. As Carolyn Steedman, in this fascinating book, puts it: ‘they are simply not already in the story that social historians are telling’.
Professor Steedman has attempted to redress this balance by looking at the case of Phoebe Beatson, a maidservant in the West Riding during the last decade of the eighteenth century. In so doing, she has studied the very same region that provided the backdrop for E P Thompson’s The Making