Ethel Mannin, the daughter of a postal sorter in Clapham, was a socialist, a feminist, a pacifist, and a leading supporter of progressive theories of education, family and sexuality. In 1920 she was just setting out in life, aged nineteen and married to John Porteous, an advertising copywriter. The couple had set up home in a small semi-detached house in the London suburb of Strawberry Hill. Ethel had a new baby and was a busy writer, at large in the first years of Modernism: ‘Living My Life’, was how she described it in her energetic capitals. A steady stream of romantic novelettes, churned out at a guinea per thousand words, provided Ethel’s income. The household kept a cook-general at thirty shillings a week, a sum Ethel considered generous (the going rate being twenty-five shillings). ‘Cap and apron, of course; blue cotton dress in the mornings; black cloth in the afternoons – and coffee-coloured caps and aprons were just that much smarter than plain white ones.’ Her socialist principles were apparently untroubled by the maid, who called her ‘Madam’ and who referred to her husband as ‘the Master’. As Mannin saw it, domestic help was a necessary component of her freedom. ‘It was snobbish; it was class distinction; it was exploitation but it worked,’ she wrote fifty years later. Educated, perceptive, imaginative, free-thinking, questioning, below the frenetic glitter of ‘the amoral decade, the Sweet and Twenties, the Bitter-Sweet Twenties, the gay Twenties, the Bright Twenties, the Roaring Twenties’, Ethel was more conventional than she had imagined herself at the time: ‘I probably gave [the maid] ten bob at Christmas and the occasional dress I was tired of. Quite intensely I dislike the memory of myself when young; but it’s the way I was. I was of my times; quintessentially.’
Though Ethel Mannin was later to write that ‘the war dealt a great blow to snobbishness’, the old awkwardness, the looming divide between women living under the same roof continued to be considered not just normal but necessary. When Rose Harrison first went to work as a lady’s-maid in the mid-twenties, her charge was Patricia Tufton, who was eighteen, the same age as Rose. ‘My relationship with Miss Patricia isn’t easy for me to describe. We weren’t friends, though if she were asked today she might deny this. We weren’t even acquaintances. We never exchanged confidences, never discussed people, nothing we said brought us closer; my advice might be asked about clothes or bits of shopping, but my opinions were never sought or given on her music, or the people we met or on anything that was personal to either of us, nor did I expect it or miss it at the time.’
25 November 2016
'It was exploitation, but it worked'
From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2690-2710: