20 October 2011


"This is a book for the servantless American cook..." is how Julia Child starts her epic work, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking". I've been re-reading Georgette Heyer's eminently amusing romantic mysteries, classic "Cozies" from the 1930's and 40's, and it struck me yesterday how very not-servant-less they all are in those books. Everybody has at least a butler, a cook, and usually a gardener, chauffeur and several maids (who tend to be prone to breaking dishes, coming over ever-so-queer, and twisting their hands nervously in their aprons when interviewed by the Inspector).

For Heyer, and her contemporaries and read-alikes such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers or Ngaio Marsh, there's always the intelligent and well-educated Scotland Yard Inspector or Private Detective, usually accompanied by Sergeant Sidekick of solidly-middle-class background who has a knack for putting servants at their ease and getting important bits of information out of them while taking his tea in the kitchen and flirting with the cook ("Get along with you, Sergeant, do! You're a one! Won't you 'ave another biscuit? They're ever so nice. But this murderin' business, that I don't 'old with, and never 'ave, and so I said to Mr Simms only this mornin'..."). Whatever would they do if a murder occurred in a house such as mine? Not a single, solitary servant to interview around here. None. There's just me, the servantless German-Canadian cook. And I'd take me apron off if an H'inspector h'approached me house, I would. Cross me 'eart and 'ope to die.

Fact is, all those Golden Age Mystery writers, they wrote about people just like themselves. Heyer and Christie had one child each, who were almost certainly taken off their hands by nannies and governesses or boarding schools; Marsh and Sayers lived their life as single women (Sayers' illegitimate son was raised by a cousin of hers). They likely never changed a diaper in their lives (and would have called them nappies, if they had, and certainly wouldn't have had to rinse the poop out of them, launder them, and hang them on the line to dry; that's what laundry maids were for). In the last Heyer book I read, "Blunt Instrument", there's a quirky young woman called Sally Drew (no relation of Nancy, as far as I can tell), who writes mystery novels and wears a monocle, no less. I'm sure she has A Room of Her Own, and probably even 500£ a year, or she wouldn't be able to saunter so nonchalantly through the pages of this novel, making the Inspector's life difficult with her amateur sleuthing which she then turns into novel plots herself. If she had to concern herself with actually doing the work which was entailed in the elaborate lifestyle of the upper middle classes of the day, if she was, in fact, servantless, she would simply have neither the time nor the energy to devote to such intellectual pursuits.

Julia Child appreciated all that. "This is a book for the servantless American cook," she continues, "who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children's meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat" (MTAFC, 2001 edition, p. xxiii). It's a sobering thought that if Julia Child had had the deepest wish of her heart fulfilled - had been able to have children - she would have been too busy to do what she became famous for. She would not have needed to find herself something to do in Paris, would never have gone to the Cordon Bleu and learned to cook, would never have shared that gift with the rest of us. Being a servantless American, but one whose husband's position at the American embassy in Paris made it unnecessary for her to do the labour of keeping the two of them clothed, fed, and comfortable, she could go and learn. And write.

Life, the Universe, and servantless living. I can't help it, Sergeant, honest!

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