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LHMP #421 Bohata 2017 Mistress and Maid

Full citation: 

Bohata, Kirsti. 2017. “Mistress and Maid: Homoeroticism, Cross-Class Desire, and Disguise in Nineteenth-Century Fiction” in Victorian Literature and Culture 45:2 pp.341-359

I read this article when working on the trope podcast about employment-related romances, but it’s taken a while to turn my highlighted copy into a useful write-up. People looking for pre-20th century sapphic-leaning fiction might want to check out some of the titles listed.

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In addition to the economic dynamics of domestic employment, the mistress-maid relationship as depicted in 19th century fiction brings in themes of loyalty, devotion, and female alliance, although the last is mostly a fictional invention. When servants feature in fiction (which is rare) these conditions create a homoerotic potential. Two women, separated by class but existing in close physical proximity, invite images of unrequited love and yearning, and sometimes their fulfillment. Conversely, the appearance of an employment relationship may serve as cover for a queer relationship. Most of the stories examined in this article involve layers of misdirection, both cross-class and cross-gender.

Some novels may use the context of domestic employment in order to be able to address love between women, leveraging the allowance that women were offered for open homoeroticism (which is not to say, open lesbianism). Some authors may have intended to depict desire between women, others may have used the motif more obliquely to address other topics.

The texts examined here include Amy Dillwyn’s quasi-autobiographical novel Jill (1884), Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1897 story “Martha’s Lady”, Constance Fenimore Woolson’s 1880 story “Miss Grief”, and Edith Wharton’s 1902 story “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.”

The potential for the hazards of cross-class intimacy was recognized in domestic handbooks that instructed on the proper relations between employers and servants. Female servants were often viewed as sexually suspect, either being available [note: this is an odd term for a situation often void of consent], or prone to lesbianism due to sharing beds, or engaging in erotic play with children in the household that they were responsible for. Outside the household, upper class people could find an erotic potential in deliberately crossing class boundaries (slumming). For women, the charitable impulse to help poor and “fallen” women might partake of this similar fascination with the other end of the class spectrum.

Within the mistress-maid relationship, several dynamics with erotic overtones are present: dominance/subservience, ritualized interactions especially around personal care access to private spaces—the ordinary activities of a servant can be hard to untangle from spying and eavesdropping.

Within the stories under consideration, the relationship between employer and employee takes various forms: unrequited desire, chivalry, spiritual sublimation, jealousy, and female marriage. The imbalance of class power within the relationship can be balanced by a tendency to masculinize the role of servant, thus creating a power dynamic at cross-purposes. In “The Grey Woman” this masculinization is overt, with the servant cross-dressing to rescue her mistress from domestic abuse, and then adopting the role of husband and protector. Servants are often depicted as stronger, more clever, and more resourceful [note: allowing the character of the mistress to fulfill the feminine ideals of passivity]. Conversely, the social power of the mistress may manifest as pressuring the employee for an unsolicited erotic relationship.

When the relationship between mistress and maid is too close, it is viewed as disruptive to the household and even sinister. The servant who dominates her employer is framed as a villain and their bond can make the danger concrete if they conspire against the man of the house. If such a bond is disrupted, then a jealous response may make the underlying nature of their relationship clear. Such boundary-crossing themes brought cross-class romance into the popular realm of sensational fiction.

Even as the vocabulary of sexology introduced ways of pathologizing desire between women, writers who wanted to address themes of same-sex love used the employment relationship as a framework to do so. In the story “Martha’s Lady” the yearning of a servant for the women she temporarily attends becomes a life-long spiritual ennoblement, finally requited when the two are reunited in old age. In “Miss Grief” the narrator mistakes a woman’s devoted companion for her maid, erasing their marriage-like relationship under the veil of a more conventional image.

The issues of how class differences stand in the way of potential romantic connections are brought to the fore in Jill, when a young runaway of good family takes on the role of lady’s maid in order to see the world. The title character is aware of her social equality with her employer, with the story focusing on the physical intimacy of their interactions, but Jill cannot take a further step or confess her desire without revealing the cross-class disguise and is left with what-if fantasies, until a dramatic and gothic climax breaks down the barriers when they are imprisoned together in a tomb. (The article returns to the motif of the servant character being masculinized, both in description and in agency.)

In summing up the themes of the article, the author notes that she has tried to avoid ahistorical assignment of lesbian identity, while noting that the disruptive potential of desire within a cross-class context allows for the subtle (or not so subtle) introduction of eroticism.


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