[Vwoolf] Compare, contrast -- and distinguish

Stuart N. Clarke stuart.n.clarke at btinternet.com
Fri May 12 14:12:21 EDT 2017

(1) “Emma was getting old, Frannie noted wistfully, as the rail-thin black maid tottered into the master bedroom with a breakfast tray in her hands.” (“More Tales of the City”, 1980)

(2) “Ellen, the discreet black maid, stood behind Mrs Chinnery’s chair, waiting” (“The Years”, 1937, “1911” ch.)

Why is Ellen black?  Because she’s old Mrs Chinnery’s maid.  She’s not a tweeny; she’s not a downstairs maid. If anyone needs serving with refreshments, it won’t be she doing it.  Therefore, she’s not wearing a white apron.  She’s dressed all in black.

Incidentally, how is Mrs Chinnery getting to her room, since she’s in a “wheeled chair”?  Will she be able to get up the stairs with help, or is her room on the same floor as the drawing-room?  Possible but unlikely, I would have thought.  There wouldn’t have been a lift.  I like to think that a couple of strapping footmen will carry her in the wheelchair up the stairs.

Let’s turn to a bit of social history.  If the photo. below comes out, it shows 3 black shop assistants in the late-1920s in the back garden of a department store.  Not that I think they would be called such, since shop assistants in a decent shop would always be wearing black.  (As little James in the film of “To the Lighthouse” would say, “My muvver is in the middle”.)  The hairstyles are a bit frightening – perms at home.  Do you think the centre and right-hand dresses are homemade?  (My mother was a good sewer.)  I doubt if the material is of good quality.  How would you clean them?  You wouldn’t dare rub a spot like Mrs Robinson does in “The Graduate”.  Perhaps a wet tea-towel and a hot iron might do.  The working classes couldn’t afford dry-cleaning until the 1930s, and only occasionally then.  And what about the sweat under the arms, turning the black to white or grey?  No deodorant of course, and baths once a week if you were lucky.  Well, what they did was wear a padded crescent of material under the arms, tacked, I assume, to the straps of the petticoat. That mopped up the sweat and protected the dresses.

This seems to me much more interesting than even considering for a moment that Ellen might have been imported from the Empire.


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