sexta-feira, 3 de janeiro de 2014

Life Downstairs

A minha amiga Conceição mostrou-me ontem à noite este artigo da The New Yorker, que não resisto a transcrever na íntegra porque muitas das pessoas que me lêem votam a boa parte dos livros nele referidos um culto tão apaixonado como o meu.

«“If I were reading this diary,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, in 1929, “I think I should seize with greed on the portrait of Nellie, and make a story—perhaps make the whole story revolve around that—it would amuse me. Her character—our efforts to get rid of her—our reconciliations.” Woolf was referring to Nellie Boxall, the domestic servant who spent eighteen years with the Woolfs until her tumultuous dismissal, in 1934. (Woolf didn’t elaborate on the cause, writing only that it ended with Nellie standing in the kitchen, “grasping a wet cloth at the sink and staring.”) Nellie so occupied Woolf’s thoughts that, as Alison Light reports in her wonderful 2008 book, “Mrs. Woolf and the Servants,” “Virginia wrote obsessively about Nellie in her diaries and letters.” Nellie-related anecdotes—her refusal to make marmalade, her “rather waspish” behavior toward unannounced guests, the fact that she gave notice ten times in six years—crop up everywhere in Woolf’s writing; so much, in fact, that “editors have been embarrassed by their superfluity.”

At the turn of the twentieth century, domestic service was the single largest occupation in Britain, as well as the greatest economic provider for women. By 1850, eighty per cent of servants in middle-class homes were female. As Light persuasively argues, “The history of service is the history of British women.” And yet servants are a ghostly presence in the literature of Woolf’s time. They are seen and unseen, both part of the family and perpetual outsiders. In 1941, Woolf wrote a scene that included a lavatory attendant, but later drafts of the same piece contained no sign of her. “The shadowy outlines of the poor and of servants can be seen in many of the earlier versions of Woolf’s work,” Light writes. “Why did she so often blue-pencil them out?” Light theorizes that Woolf “was driven by the urgent need to handle and reshape what she found unaesthetic, even repulsive, especially when it concerned the life of the body.” And what greater reminder is there of the life of the body than a person whose role is to administer to it?

Woolf wasn’t the only one to “blue-pencil” out the servants. While literature is filled with famous governesses—Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, and the unnamed narrator in James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” to name a few—the same isn’t true for housemaids. (There’s the famous exception of Pamela, Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth-century housemaid, who undergoes a long and torturous seduction at the hands of her master, but she is one of the few who is fully at the center of a novel.) The distinction is important: governesses had a degree of literacy and social mobility that housemaids did not; they were largely middle class, and, but for their clothes, they could pass as members of the upper class. But, unlike governesses, housemaids were essential to the functioning of most Victorian homes. As Light writes, “Without all the domestic care and hard work which servants provided there would have been no art, no writing, no ‘Bloomsbury.’ ”

This hard work went largely unacknowledged in literature until the second half of the twentieth century, when the diminishing presence of household staff in English society coincided with an increased demand for first-person accounts of servants’ lives. Lucy Lethbridge, in “Servants,” a history of domestic service, lists many such memoirs: “Below Stairs,” the best-selling 1968 autobiography of Margaret Powell, a former maid; Jean Rennie’s “Every Other Sunday”; and countless how-to books by ex-butlers, with titles like “Ager’s Way to Easy Elegance” and “Butler’s Guide: Clothes Care, Managing the Table, Running the Home and Other Graces.” Between 1971 and 1975, “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the British television series about the goings-on in an Edwardian household, reached an estimated billion viewers worldwide.

We are now in the grip of another servant renaissance. Powell’s sequel to “Below Stairs,” called “Servants’ Hall,” was published in 2013; the memoir “Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor,” from 1975, is back on the shelves as a new Penguin paperback; and “Life Below Stairs: The True Lives of Edwardian Servants” was published in 2012. Servant-focussed movies like “the Butler” and “The Help” have captured the attention of Hollywood, and then, of course, there’s “Downton Abbey,” ITV’s runaway hit show.

Perhaps the most distinguished and powerful example of this newly revived genre is Jo Baker’s recent novel, “Longbourn,” which asks readers to think of the unpleasant chores that make up the unwritten backdrop to one of the most celebrated novels in English literature. Those familiar with “Pride and Prejudice” know that, midway through the Jane Austen novel, Elizabeth Bennet embarks on an expedition to Derbyshire with her aunt and uncle, where she and the Gardiners visit the magisterial grounds of Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s estate. But few readers wonder who looks after the four Gardiner children while their parents are away. We read that the little ones stayed behind in Longbourn, with the Bennets, but, swept up in the impending romance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, we don’t give these practical arrangements much thought. But in Baker’s retelling, which is centered on the Bennets’ young housemaid Sarah, the Midlands trip is the cause of “a deal of extra trouble, and noise, and meals, and washing…. shitty nappies, the wetted beds: the work.”

In “Longbourn,” pumps are cranked, buckets are filled, chamber pots are emptied into reeking outhouses. We read about servants’ “footsore hours” and backbreaking tasks, and we encounter the Bennet sisters mostly via their soiled linens, “their sweat, their stains, their monthly blood.” In Baker’s novel, Kitty and Lydia, the younger Bennet girls, treat the servants insufferably, while Jane and Elizabeth are as benevolent toward them as social restrictions allow. They give the maids their old dresses, and even books, though they don’t mind dispatching a young maid into the driving rain to buy shoe roses. (Austen writes, “The very shoe roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.”)

“Pride and Prejudice” experts can take pleasure in Baker’s fidelity to the details of the Austen novel: as she explains in an afterword, every carriage that the Bennets take in “Pride and Prejudice” awaits them in “Longbourn”; every meal the family eats in the former book has been prepared in the latter. But the book’s greatest strength lies in its precise, unsparing descriptions of the physical squalor and destitution of nineteenth-century downstairs life. “He was dirty,” she writes of James. “His fingernails were black, his hair filthy, there was a rime of grey about the skin and clothes. And the clothes themselves looked as though they’d been stolen off half-a-dozen different washing lines.” Mr. Darcy studies Sarah “as if she were an unconsidered household item that had abruptly ceased to function.” And Sarah, in turn, offers, a slanted, skeptical look at Austen’s much loved heroines. Glancing at Elizabeth, before they depart for Pemberley, Sarah reflects, “Perhaps it was not an easy thing, to be so entirely happy. Perhaps it was actually quite a fearful state to live in—the knowledge that one had achieved complete success.” In this telling, Elizabeth has nothing more to aim for—it is Sarah who keeps striving to blaze her own path in life.

Adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice” are not new, of course. We’ve seen everything from “Bridget Jones” to a portrayal of Lizzie’s past as a zombie hunter. But “Longbourn,” with its emphasis on the live-in servants, offers an especially appealing, and timely, reworking of the classic. What accounts for the sudden burst of interest in life downstairs? The answer may be related, in part, to our troubled economy and to a new sense of reluctant identification with the nineteenth-century underclasses. Stories about servants offer us a two-fold consolation: unfettered access to the lives of the upper classes, as well as a kind of schadenfreude in observing the narrow lives of British servants more than a hundred years ago. The economy may be tanking, but at least we don’t have to unload stinking chamber pots into the sewer. We may not be swimming in champagne but, as the surge in servants’ literature reminds us, we could do far worse. We indulge in a tendency to subsume our present problems in a fiction about the past.

Baker’s novel goes beyond escapist fantasy, drawing subtle comparisons between past and present. Much as Jean Rhys’s reimagining of “Jane Eyre” through a postcolonial perspective became popular in the late nineteen-sixties, when “Wide Sargasso Sea” was published, so is Baker’s class-conscious reconsideration of “Pride and Prejudice” representative of our own time. Theirs is not a restrictive view of the past but an inclusive one, similar to Kazuo Ishiguro’s in his nuanced depiction of Stevens, the aging butler-narrator of “The Remains of the Day.” In the novel, Stevens gradually comes to term with certain unattractive truths about his former employer, Lord Darlington. Toward the end of the book, Stevens’ fierce sense of loyalty is suddenly shot through with a hint of rebellion:

Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. At least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?

This kind of rebellion also crops up, and is expanded upon, in “Longbourn,” leading Sarah to reflect that “no one should have to deal with another person’s dirty linen.”

Photograph: London Stereoscopic Company/Getty»

Por mais que abomine a exploração despudorada dos valiosos e apetecíveis filões que podem ser romances muito amados por sucessivas gerações de leitores, e temos exemplos deploráveis como há coisa de vinte anos aquela absurda e revoltante continuação de E Tudo O Vento Levou ou, mais recentemente, o sacrilégio de que Os Maias foi vítima, a verdade é que este romance de Jo Baker, Longbourn, me despertou grande curiosidade, e não sinto que violente a minha paixão pela obra-prima que lhe deu origem. Porque não toca na história que conhecemos de cor e salteado, ainda que a cada renovada leitura possa sempre surpreender-nos por mais um pormenor que antes nos tinha passado despercebido, prova inequívoca da grandeza da criação do escritor. Longbourn não acrescenta nada a Orgulho e Preconceito, acaba onde acaba o original, com o casamento de Lizzie e Mr Darcy. Não vemos a nova Mrs Darcy principescamente instalada em Pemberley a tomar um chá benevolente com a Miss Bingley que tão pouco simpática nos é ao longo do livro, e que provavelmente só não teria acabado os seus dias como solteirona amarga instalada em casa do irmão ou da irmã porque dona de apetitoso dote.

Se Beaumarchais deu uma continuação desencantada (e revolucionária, muito seguramente um dos pequenos rastilhos isolados que, todos somados, levaram à tomada da Bastilha em 1789) à sua deliciosa peça O Barbeiro de Sevilha, estava no seu direito, a peça era sua e dela podia fazer o que quisesse, e assim nasceu As Bodas de Fígaro. Que tais obras tenham dado origem a duas das mais soberbas construções musicais que a humanidade conhece, a primeira pela mão de Rossini e a segunda por Mozart (e Da Ponte, convém não esquecer o extraordinário libretto) pouco interessa agora. O que me repugna é que estranhos venham mais tarde pegar em extraordinárias obras que se tornaram património cultural de todos para as usar em seu proveito, porque o vil metal fala mais alto. E há sempre patos que vão no conto do vigário. No caso de Longbourn, mantenho, estou curiosa, por se tratar de uma construção literária passada nos bastidores, acompanhando a par e passo a acção e as personagens que tão bem conhecemos. Um outro olhar sobre a história, ou a história e as personagens vistas pelos olhos dos criados.

O livro, de resto, como já fui espreitar na Amazon (aqui), tem rave reviews: em 82 críticas feitas por gente que quase toda sabe o que diz, 48 atribuem-lhe cinco estrelas e 19 dão-lhe quatro. 

À margem, não consigo resistir a mencionar uma personagem que não é referida no artigo, ao listar personagens que nos são muito familiares: a Mrs Danvers de Rebecca. Ou a criada de infância do narrador de Em Busca do Tempo Perdido. E é impossível não suspirar de desgosto por uma tão extraordinária personagem como a Juliana de Eça de Queiroz continuar desconhecida dos amantes da grande Literatura.

Para finalizar, já tinha visto em tempos um muito interessante documentário sobre as condições de vida e a hierarquia da criadagem na Inglaterra vitoriana. Ontem, durante a conversa com a Conceição, encontrei mais dois, que tenciono ver ainda hoje. Aqui ficam os links:

The Horrific World of England's Workhouse (o título parece-me desagradavelmente sensacionalista, não posso pronunciar-me porque ainda não vi)

De vez em quando gosto de relancear um olhar pelos comentários no YouTube. E neste último documentário encontrei este, escrito há dois meses:

Michael Mangan
I have recently retired as the proverbial English Butler. My early years were spent working for british aristocracy. I began as a 3rd footman , and worked my way up as I learned the profession.It was fun , good employers, and fellow staff. I was warned to stay away from "new money". But I fell into the trap when there were very few of the older people left. Employers who knew the rules , as did we. The new money crowd , do not as a whole know how to treat staff. I hope a few watch this series.

9 comentários:

  1. Já o tinha acrescentado à minha wishlist há coisa de um mês atrás, mas agora com este artigo subiu uma data de posições na pilha a ler. Obrigada :D

    1. Quem agradece sou eu, Ana. Mais ainda se depois vier aqui contar as suas impressões. Acrescentei-o ao meu carrinho de compras (um desespero de tão atafulhado, tenho de o gerir com muita parcimónia), mas ainda não formalizei a compra.

    2. Ups, avisei a Izzie mas esqueci-me de avisar aqui. Ex-Charlotte do Pares de Três aqui. Assumi o nome.

      (ah, a propósito do restaurante no Cartaxo, O Pátio, os meus pais realmente lembram-se e acham que é o agora Batalhoz, onde o meu pai tinha o habito de almoçar até há uns meses atrás)

    3. Ah, e dá uma espreitadela ao The Goldfinch, Donna Tart. Vou a 65% e acho que és capaz de gostar.

    4. Ana, Ana, Ana!
      Eu andei ontem a mexer na lista de links na barra ali ao lado. Provavelmente deveria fazer post sobre isso. Tirei blogues, acrescentei uns quantos (talvez uns cinco, não mais), mantive alguns por razões sentimentais. O seu, o teu (já não me lembro, tratamo-nos por tu ou você?) ficou lá, provavelmente a única excepção - um blogue que passou a privado e ao qual não tenho acesso. Atribuí isso a uma qualquer perda de mensagem a convidar-me para ser lido, e bem procurei. Até tinha pensado em perguntar ao meu grupo secreto no Facebook (grupo de amizades firmes) se sabiam alguma coisa da Charlotte do Pares de Três. E teria certamente resposta.

      Mas esta resposta é melhor. Vou agora seguir o link. E aviso já que, caso o blogue seja privado (a ser outro blogue), espero convite!

    5. Eu quando criei o novo blogue andei a mandar emails para os contactos todos, mas se calhar ficou perdido no spam. Acho que está ali no perfil, mas de qualquer forma

      Não dá para encontrar pelo Google, mas qualquer pessoa com o link pode lê-lo :)

    6. Quanto ao restaurante, pesquisei e confirma-se, o tal Batalhoz é mesmo o velho Pátio, reconheci-o nas fotografias.

  2. Meu Deus Teresa... as saudades que eu já tinha de ler esta sua forma simples, e ao mesmo tempo profunda, de explicar o mundo. A sua visão apaixonada pela arte.

    (A terceira resolução parece estar a tomar forma).

    Bem haja.

    1. Caríssimo José, o seu comentário pôs-me um nó na garganta, mostrou-me o que tenho perdido em vir aqui tão pouco. Não por ser um comentário elogioso, mas por ser um comentário de quem leu tudo, apreendeu, e depois decidiu que lhe apetecia acrescentar alguma coisa.

      A terceira resolução está a tomar forma sim, e quero cumprir. Não sei explicar-me quanto me comoveu a sua frase sobre "a minha forma de explicar o mundo". Não tenho forma de explicar o mundo, vou apenas tentando dizer como o vejo, eu própria sem explicações para coisa nenhuma. Já a paixão pela arte, ah!, essa sim, tenho-a! Mas é apenas paixão pela beleza, qualquer que seja a forma.

      Quem diz "bem haja" sou eu.