Saturday, March 29, 2014


The other day I finished a novel called Longbourn, by Jo Baker, that follows the lives of the servants in the Bennet household -- the central characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  I didn't receive a complimentary copy or anything, but I did want to give a shout out to the author for addressing one of those glaring inaccuracies that characterizes so much historical fiction, whether in books or on film.  Longbourn opens on a washday, and the central theme of this opening scene is upon hands -- working hands, scalded hands, chilblain-afflicted hands, and the goose grease the maids of Longbourn rubbed into their cracked, bleeding hands at the end of the day to restore range of movement, if not comfort.  This theme continues throughout the book, whether contrasted with the soft, pale, even flaccid hands of the gentlefolk for whom the servants work or in passing comments that remind us these same cracked, blistered digits also touched (and tried to avoid bleeding upon) dainty gowns and fine veils.

Physical comfort on such a prosaic level is one of those things we tend to elide from our perusal of the past.  We might attend to the vital themes of hunger, oppression, violence, or lack of shelter, but seldom do we consider such basic and ubiquitous privations.  Take a look at the hands of the servants on Downton Abbey.  Historical accuracy might extend as far as Daisy's worn dresses, but I suspect cracked and blistered hands would take accuracy a bit too far for contemporary viewers.  Seldom have I found a written story that addresses this reality, either.

For lotion and mild soap, modern household appliances and cleaning products, give thanks.  And remember, those refinements of the upper classes came not just at the expense of servants' labor, but of their very skins.  What of modern labor?  An interesting question to ponder.  Working conditions mattered then -- a lot.  They still do.  Chemicals and practices, rules and regulations, matter.  The environment includes humans, and industry continues to involve skin, whether directly through the workplace or indirectly through the ways in which the products of industry are diffused.

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