Directions to Servants
A bracingly absurdist guide to the (mis)behavior appropriate to servants. In addition to a general exhortation to all the household staff to cheat their master and mistress in every way possible, Swift also addresses individual notes to the Butler, the Cook, the Footman (including advice on how to act when going to be hanged), the Coachman (who should be drunk), the Groom, the Steward, the Porter, the Chambermaid, the Waiting-maid, the Housemaid, the Dairymaid, the Children’s Maid, the Nurse (‘If you happen to let the child fall, and lame it, be sure never to confess it; and if it dies, all is safe…’ ), the Laundress, the Housekeeper, and the Governess. All are told to look out for their own best advantage and their master’s ‘credit’ – especially if given money in advance to make purchases. Chutzpah is the greatest virtue, and Swift explores its myriad applications with very near his usual vigor. See, for instance, his advice to a footman:
If you are ordered to make coffee for the ladies after dinner, and the pot happens to boil over while you are running up for a spoon to stir it, or are thinking of something else, or struffling with the chambermaid for a kiss, wipe the sides of the pot clean with a dish-clout, carry up your coffee boldly, and when your lady finds it too weak, and examines you whether it hath not run over, deny the fact absolutely, swear that you put in more coffee than ordinary, that you never stirred an inch from it, that you strove to make it better than usual because your mistress had ladies with her, that the servants in the kitchen will justify what you say. Upon this, you will find that the other ladies will pronounce your coffee to be very good, and your mistress will confess that her mouth is out of taste, and she will for future suspect herself, and be more cautious in finding fault.1 This I would have you do from a principle of conscience, for coffee is very unwholesome, and, out of affection to your lady, you ought to give it to her as weak as possible; and upon this argument, when you have a mind to treat any of the maids with a dish of fresh coffee, you may, and ought to subtract a third part of the powder on account of your lady’s health, and getting her maids’ goodwill (38f.)
It is a delightful trifle (as opposed to an agreeable fluff), and I wish Swift had had the energy to develop it further; I suppose the author’s death is as good an excuse as any for not finishing it, but I’m still disappointed.
- ‘If you are a young, sightly fellow, whenever you whisper to your mistress at the table, run your nose full in her cheek, or if your breath be good, breathe full in her face; this I know to have had very good consequences in some families’ (6).