"Loyal saints or devious rascals": domestic servants in Edith Wharton's stories "The Lady's Maid's Bell" and "All Souls'". (Articles)

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Date: Fall 1999
From: Studies in Short Fiction(Vol. 36, Issue 4)
Publisher: Studies in Short Fiction
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,380 words

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Critic Andrew Levy points out the importance of the indoors for Wharton: "Indoor metaphors were a leitmotif in her letters, essays, and fiction, and her books on garden architecture and home decor were among her most gratifying labors" (58). Considering the importance of interior spaces for Wharton, it is hardly surprising that she spent a great deal of time in her fiction discussing one aspect of interiors that was omnipresent for a wealthy woman at the turn of the century: domestic servants. They appear in numerous of Wharton's stories, including "Afterward," "The Day of the Funeral," "The Temperate Zone," and "The Young Gentlemen," as well as the two stories under study in this essay: "The Lady's Maid's Bell" and "All Souls'." Why does Wharton, who came from an impeccably upper-class background, dwell so extensively on maids and other servants? The answer to this question, as we shall see, is complex, as she uses maids for a number of different purposes, including as a vehicle for critiquing upper-class values and for suggesting the instability of the class system in which she grew up. Maids are also important to examine because, although the economic relationships that Wharton's upper-class heroines are forced to enter have been the focus of a great deal of critical scrutiny, less attention has been given to another more submerged economic system at work in her fiction: the domestic servants and their relationship and role in the economy of Wharton's texts. (1)

Servants are particularly intriguing to study in Wharton's short fiction because the subject has been inadequately addressed in previous studies. In Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life (1994.), Eleanor Dwight discusses Wharton's servants briefly. Barbara A. White, in her book Edith Wharton: A Study of the Short Fiction (1991), considers servants, but this inspection is also rather cursory. She does, however, point out the importance of servants in Wharton's fiction: "Wharton never completely shed her `deep class prejudices' ... Yet the late short stories show a relaxation of those prejudices to the point where there is a greater lower-class presence with the perspectives of lower-class characters, especially servants, being presented more strongly and sympathetically" (98). This essay will elaborate on the presence of servants by exploring their significance in "The Lady's Maid's Bell" (1904) and "All Souls'" (1937), showing how these stories provide readers with two very different perceptions of servants, revealing Wharton's ambivalence about the social class system to which she belonged.

To understand Wharton's interest in servants, it helps to recognize that she was writing at a time when servants were de rigueur for upper- and middle-class families. Servants were a fact of life for many, including those families in Wharton's elite social milieu. (2) She herself had servants involved in her life from her youngest days; one of the earliest recollections she recorded in her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), was of her nurse, Doyley, about whom Wharton wrote: "Doyley's presence was the warm cocoon in which my infancy lived safe and sheltered; the atmosphere...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A90990562