I asked earlier this week who people wanted to hear about, and the first reader response was “Dodo, please!” So, for Erin, here’s Dodo…
The idea for Dodo started to take shape when I read the memoir of Rosina Harrison’s ROSE: MY LIFE IN SERVICE TO LADY ASTOR. Staff memoirs are one of my favorite things in the world to read–largely because they usually shatter a ton of misconceptions about servant-employer relationships. While the upstairs definitely held the power in the relationship and often wielded it with brutal precision, the downstairs had their ways of evening the score. For every Duke of Bedford–a peer who insisted his staff face the wall and remain silent if he approached–there was a Duchess of Marlborough, an aristocrat who suffered agonies when her cook insisted upon sending up ortolans (a dish she hated and considered pretentious) to punish her in front of a large dinner party of titled guests.
Employer-employee relationships varied hugely in intimacy and details. Some mistresses thought nothing of walking around entirely nude in front of their ladies’ maids, while others used them only for fastening outer garments and lacing corsets over chemises. Some men never spoke to their valets about personal matters, others relied upon them to keep the most painfully private secrets. A servant whose attachment to a family was one of long duration might enjoy tremendous privilege in the staff hierarchy and could often get away with breathtaking intimacy.
In contrast to this, the poor relation was the ultimate people pleaser. She–and it always seemed to be a she–was usually too well born to permit actual employment but too poor to support herself as a gentlewoman. And somehow she had failed at her primary job, the securing of a suitable husband. Whether from disinclination or bad luck, she was single and unable to provide for herself. Luckily for her, good birth and societal expectations dictated her family would shelter her, albeit sometimes with very bad grace. (If no family member could be found to take her in, she might take genteel employment as a governess or companion or secretary, but these were usually the last resorts.)
With day cares and rehabilitation centers and retirement homes not yet common, the poor relation was the perfect person to step in and help the harried mother, the invalid, the elderly. Her inclination was not particularly important. She did what she needed to do to keep the wolf from the door. If there weren’t children or an old person to take care of, she might function as a sort of general dogsbody. She would answer letters and take telephone messages. She might make travel arrangements and run errands. She made up the fourth for bridge even when she would have preferred a good book. She made conversation with the “odd man” at a dinner party, and she might have spent her afternoon reading aloud or darning stockings or arranging flowers. If the mistress of the house had no interest in domestic matters, the poor relation might find herself ordering sauces and supervising the cook. In a country household, she might be dispatched to the poor with soup and jam, doing good works while the rest of the family did as they pleased.
Her work was not normally arduous–she might walk lapdogs and sort the family’s post and cut the flowers from the garden–but it must have been mentally exhausting. Without the means to support herself, she was entirely dependent upon the goodwill of the people she lived with, people who might turn her out if they decided she didn’t suit. Her primary job was to please and that meant putting her own inclinations second, regardless of fatigue, illness, or boredom.
While ROSE was of use to me because it detailed Rosina’s reactions to traveling in Virginia with her employer–her observations about race relationships formed the basis for Dodo’s reactions to native Africans in contrast to Delilah’s–she is not based on any one person. The poor relation is an interesting character to explore. I wanted her to be a little downtrodden but I also wanted glimmers of something more to her. I wanted her to WANT to break out of her natural reticence, but I also wanted her to ultimately choose safety and security over adventure. She has the example of Delilah before her, a cautionary tale if ever there was one. She has seen firsthand what following your own desires can do to a person, and she is aghast at the consequences. (It’s no accident that every time Dodo tries to emulate Delilah she pays for it.) It brings up an inherent unfairness in their situation. Dodo wants to be a little like Delilah, to embrace her free spirit and to take chances, but she cannot do so successfully. She simply lacks the backbone (or streak of cruelty or strength, depending upon your viewpoint) and she steps back into the security of the sort of life she really wants.
And in that way, Dodo creates for herself exactly the life she has always craved. She will be her own mistress–after all, one can hardly expect her life partner will be too exacting a presence. She makes her choice with her eyes wide open, and for her own mental health, she leaves Delilah in her past. In doing so, Dodo makes an ending that might just be happier than most other characters in the book. (Erin compared her to Charlotte Lucas, which I hadn’t considered before, but is of course a BRILLIANT comparison. They are both girls with a certain measure of cool common sense. Both are worried about their status and ability to take care of themselves, and both of them scorn their closest friends’ pursuit of passion when they value stability above all else. And they both choose dull clergymen to marry! I don’t know how I missed that, but this is what I love about readers. Great observation, Erin!)
Reader Nicole wanted to know more about Jude. She is perhaps the most damaged character I’ve written. As a victim of domestic abuse, Jude is not in a good place at the point we see her in her story. Against Tusker’s wishes, she married a man who turned out to be an abuser and whom she did not entirely love. Like most victims, she stays with him for a host of complicated reasons. She is grieving for the husband she does not believe is actually dead, and the depression resulting from that unresolved loss has affected her judgment badly, leading her to seek intimacy with a man who is not good for her. Because she does not wholly believe her beloved first husband is dead, her remarriage causes her incredible conflict, including a subconscious belief that it’s alright for her to suffer at her new husband’s hands. Is this healthy? Absolutely not. is it psychologically plausible? Yes. It is common for victims of domestic abuse to stay in the relationship for years–according to the US Dept of Justice, the average victim leaves seven times before making a permanent break with her abuser. And the reasons for staying are as varied as the women themselves. (There may be a statistical picture of the “average” abuse victim, but each situation is different.) In Jude’s case, affection and pity for her abuser, inability to create an escape, and ongoing functional depression contribute to Jude’s delusion that she is somehow managing the abuse and that what she suffers at Anthony’s hands “isn’t that bad”. Is this right? NO. Is it a logical belief for a victim to have while she is in the middle of the abuse cycle? Yes, and certainly in the 1920s when women were far more inclined to hear the societal message that marital violence was sometimes simply a fact of life. That belief that abuse is somehow “under control” is how women stay in bad marriages even now when there are domestic abuse hotlines and shelters in every town. Will Jude stay with Anthony? Not forever. She is smart, capable, and determined, and at some point she will take steps to end the relationship. But that wasn’t part of this story and it isn’t her story yet.
Note: this is unrelated to SPEAR, but one of my favorite reads is ONE PAIR OF HANDS by Monica Dickens. It’s the story of Charles Dickens’ grand-daughter (or perhaps great) who spends a year working as a cook to alleviate her boredom. Highly recommended, not in the least because it demonstrates how easily a clever servant could get the better of an employer.