Serving in the Household and the Imagination: The Brontës, Alcott, and the Interconnected Roles of a Neglected “Transatlantic” Female Figure
Keywords:transatlantic service, Victorian, Brontës, Alcott, domestic fiction
Tabitha Aykroyd, Martha Brown, Nancy and Sarah Garrs were just a few of the very many girls and women working as domestic servants in early Victorian Britain. The main purpose of this article is to analyze the precise context and conditions in which they were employed in Haworth Parsonage, where the Brontë sisters lived for most of their lives (1820–1855), and the influence that they had on the well-being of this famous family and on the imagination and literary activity of the sisters. Aspects connected with the following will be explored and problematized: the value and respect that the Brontës attributed to or showed these domestic laborers and their work, including sharing in their tasks and duties; brief but useful connections of these figures with the sisters’ own professional activities as middle-class women (namely, when serving as teachers and governesses themselves); and also comparison with some relevant literary representations of the figure and role of the “female servant” in the Brontës’ novels. A complementary purpose is of a more transatlantic nature: to compare their earlier British domestic context with Louisa May Alcott’s later American one, and their literary representations of the female servant with Alcott’s own extensive treatment of that neglected figure in some of her fictional works. The justification for this comparison does not lie so much in the known influence that the works written by the Brontës, in particular Charlotte’s, had on Alcott, but more in their sharing of very similar concerns as regards this topic, in spite of very specific (transatlantic) differences that can be revealing of their respective attitude towards servitude.
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