The rugged mountains and coastline of North Wales attract many…
By the early Victorian era, the mistress of every wealthy household had to represent the family in a stylish way. Her appearance at events, balls or even at home had to be immaculate. For her perfect looks, she needed help which was provided by the Lady’s maid.
A Lady’s Maid was so much more than a housemaid. Perhaps today the Lady’s Maid could be called stylist, however, to my mind the Lady’s Maid had more skills: she was an excellent hairdresser, a beatuy therapist, seamstress and a friend. Before commencing a career in a household a Lady’s maid was often trained as a dressmaker or a hairdresser. The more skills she had, the better chance she had to become the Lady’s Maid in high society.
Position in the household
The Lady’s Maid belonged to the indoor servants and to the so called ‘Uppper Ten’ (house steward or butler, housekeeper, chef or cook, valet and Lady’s Maid) who – because of their access to upstairs and contact with the family – were in a privileged situation and had more respect.
The Lady’s Maid exceptional position in the household was reflected in her room as well: she had her own room on her own and it was furnished relatively comfortably, meaning she had a bed, an ottoman, a Japanese screen, bath, washstand, a tailor’s dummy, a sewing machine and kits and later on an electric socket for an iron.
In higher society French maids were preferred, however, some mistresses found the French harsh and too quick-tempered, so that they rather employed Swiss maids who were said to be calmer and to have good organisation skills.
The main tasks of a Lady’s maid was to ensure her mistress’s look was immaculate. She helped her in bathing, combing, making different hairstyles and more importantly getting dressed. If necessary, she mended or sewed clothes, removed staines and cleaned jewellery. It may seem a bit odd today that someone needs help to get dressed, but in the days of bustles, several petticoats, corsets, hats and dresses with many buttons in the back we can admit it is impossible to do it without help. On top of that, until the end of the Edwardian era, ladies changed six times a day. Having said that, it gives an idea as to how many clothes, dresses, accessories and baggage was packed by the Lady’s Maid for her mistress whenever she went on a trip – on which of course the Lady’s maid had to accompany her.
Beside her main duties, the Lady’s Maid was a companion or even friend of the lady of the house. She looked after her health, foibles and weaknesses. A good Lady’s maid protected her mistress’s secrets and remained a loyal employee at all times. Therefore, it was essential for the Lady’s maid to be discrete, reliable, trustworthy.
The Lady’s maid perks were to get her mistress’s old clothes, or those ones that were out of fashion, which she could sell at a second hand shop. But perhaps the most welcome perks was travelling. Depending on the wealth of the mistress, the Lady’s Maid had the chance to travel around the country, Europe or even the world as she always had to accompany her employer. Yet, this job was not all fun at all: when the lady attended an event. The Lady’s Maid had to stay up and wait for her mistress to arrive which often happened early in the morning (3-4am) to help her getting undressed, washed and combed.
The next step in a Lady’s maid career could be the Housekeeper even if a Lady’s Maid did not necessarily know much about running a houshold. This however, required a compromise: career or private life. As a Lady’s Maid she had to spend several years or even decades in the position to gain trust and get the necessary skills and experience which did not leave too much room for a private life and suitors. Especially in the Victorian era, when the woman had to quit her job at the household if she married a male servant.
O’Brien in Downton Abbey chose career after having worked more than 20 years in service. Whether she has ever had the chance of getting married, we don’t know. Knowing her character, I would doubt it…