Victorian maids were instructed to turn their faces to the wall if they happened to encounter their employers. In fact, it would have made little difference if a parlourmaid did raise her eyes for a brief, subversive moment: most employers barely noticed the toilers in their own households, the thirteen-year-old girls who woke at 6am in freezing bedrooms to lay fires, hump coal and wash dishes until their hands were red and raw. Of course there were benevolent employers who took a kindly or paternalistic interest in the welfare of their staff, but even they would never have dreamed of questioning the hierarchy of the upper-class household, the essential, even divinely ordained, rightness of there being in one house two societies, divided by a chasm of inequality.
Power, resentment, servility, dependence, ambition and love – all under one roof: no wonder the master–servant relationship is an ideal subject for fiction or drama. This is the rich seam which Giles Waterfield examines in his new novel where