Review: Master and Servant by Carolyn Steedman

Carolyn Steedman's Master and Servant puts servants back at the centre of working-class history, says Kathryn Hughes

Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age
by Carolyn Steedman
276pp, Cambridge, £17.99

Stop me if you've heard this one before, or at least something very like it. In the last few days of 1801 a maidservant called Phoebe Beatson gets herself pregnant. Her employer, a West Yorkshire clergyman with the appropriately brooding name of Murgatroyd, insists that she marry the father of her baby, a local man called George Thorp. Everyone else - parish worthies, the neighbours, a passing sheepdog - agrees that a wedding to Thorp is the only way to bring this unhappy state of affairs to a satisfactory resolution.

From this point the story can go either of two ways. Either Thorp, bullied by village pressure, can drag himself reluctantly to the church and make an honest woman of Phoebe, so saving baby Elizabeth from bastardy. Or, in the slightly more gothic ending, Thorp will refuse to do the decent thing, with the result that tragic Phoebe gets turned out from the clergyman's house and is left to give birth to her shameful brat under a snowy hedge.

Both versions seem possible to us precisely because they are so familiar. The plots have been handed down by social historians who, for the past 50 years, have been busy trying to understand the lives of the working classes in industrialising Britain. Repeated in popular fictions and amplified in costume dramas, the alternative plights of the pregnant working girl who must either marry a man who does not love her or else be cast out of the community have become the inevitable, the only, ways of predicting what happened next in Phoebe Beatson's story.

But, as Carolyn Steedman shows in this brilliant piece of recovery, historical actors - a smart way of referring to the people who actually lived in the past - have a mulish way of not doing what they're supposed to. Phoebe Beatson, in actual fact, neither became the nagging, disappointed village wife of George Thorp, nor was she condemned to tramp the streets of Leeds as a gin-soaked prostitute with a sickly baby on her hip. Instead, the Rev Murgatroyd - who turns out not to be a pantomime baddie after all - helped Phoebe to negotiate the parish red tape required to get Thorp to pay up, and then kept mother and daughter safely under his roof.

From here it's clear that the elderly clergyman, a childless widower, proceeded to fall blithely in love with little Elizabeth. His diary entries are spattered with references to "beloved Elizabeth" and the "lovely child". The final proof of Murgatroyd's cherishing kindness to his servant and her daughter comes with the opening of his will in 1806. Phoebe gets a whopping £150 and most of his household goods, including beds, chairs, dressers and "the little table in common use". Little Elizabeth, meanwhile, gets another £150 all to herself.

Steedman is as interested in the stories we tell about the past as she is in what actually happened in that faraway country. Her concern in Master and Servant is not merely to rescue Phoebe Beatson from bad melodrama, but to show how even the best-intentioned historical writing can end up making us see things that aren't there or, more specifically, not noticing what isn't. The object of her particular attention is EP Thompson's 1963 classic, The Making of the English Working Class, which draws most of its data from the same small stretch of time and place where Phoebe, Murgatroyd and Thorp came from. Thompson, famously, gave a hugely influential account of how the home-based workers of the Calder and Colne valleys were turned into a deskilled proletariat by the coming of industrial technology to the local textile industry.

Many historians have tinkered subsequently with Thompson's model, pushing it back and forward in time, playing with its shape and boundaries. Steedman's beef, however, concerns much bigger matters. She maintains that Thompson actually left out the largest category of the working class from his analysis: servants. Steeped in Marxism, Thompson simply couldn't see how servants, who appear to produce nothing beyond a nicely polished stone floor or the occasional pot of jam, could be worked into his epic tale about labour and capitalism. Add in the fact that domestic workers tend not to pop up in the written record - Phoebe Beatson herself could not write - and it has been all too easy to leave them out of the story of industrial Britain's origins. Instead they have become a silent army of sad-eyed girls (female servants vastly outnumbered males) waiting to be corralled into stock plots about serial seducers and hard-hearted employers.

Of course, teasing out the unforeseen truth of Beatson's life is not enough to radically rewrite Thompson's analysis, although it is certainly sufficient to complicate it. In the same way, Steedman uses the fact of Murgatroyd's gentle, generous Anglicanism as a way of reminding readers of Thompson and all who came after that the God who stalked the Calder and Colne valleys in the late 18th century was not necessarily a Methodist one, steeped in righteous opposition to the established order. These may seem like pedantic points to anyone but professional historians of industrialising Britain. But the fact that most of us, when presented with the beginning of Phoebe Beatson's story, think that we have a pretty good idea of how it must have ended, suggests that we are more in thrall to other people's ways of historical seeing than we ever quite realised.

· Kathryn Hughes's The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton is published by Harper Perennial


Kathryn Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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