A useless servant who slacked from work was an archetype in nineteenth-century novels. An equally common literary character was an upper- or middle-class woman who desperately sought after reliable maids, cooks, and housekeepers, and who equally industriously grumbled about the impossibility of her task. The widespread literary types found their counterparts in real life. The correspondence of nineteenth-century middle-class women abounds with frustration about their incompetent servants. The letters also reveal how these women gladly shared information about available trustworthy servants in order to help their friends and relatives when they were searching for domestics. Historians were not spared from these difficulties and similarly their diaries and letters record distress whenever a good housekeeper or an able cook was desperately needed.
Although historians often lived on a rather modest income, their households usually comprised at least of one “maid of all works”. Historians were firmly embedded in the realms of middle-class and it was only rarely when a nineteenth-century middle-class family did not employ servants. While a servant was a token of respectability, domestic help was usually also vital for running the daily household. The aid was much welcomed also because historians’ public role created certain expectations what came to their homes, lifestyle, and dinners served. The higher they climbed on the academic ladder, the more pressing these demands became. The fact that professors entertained their colleagues and other cultural and political worthies as well as received their students at home meant that some degree of domestic order and style were required. Pleasant dinner parties and get-togethers were positively marked by guests and while perhaps no one was as ruthless as Thomas Babington Macaulay in commenting tedious gatherings, poorly organized soirées did not do any favor to the host and hostess. There were, of course, those who went against the grain and cared very little of what their guests might think about their mode of living. Professor Jacob Burckhardt’s extremely modest two-room apartment above a baker’s shop in Basel lead his first-time visitors to question whether they had arrived at the correct address; an eminent professor could not live in such humble quarters, could he? In spite of a few eccentrics, what came to the domestic arrangements, historians widely confirmed to the middle-class values and fashions as far as their budgets allowed them to do so.
It is well known that the nineteenth-century middle-class ideals were gendered. The world was divided into men’s public and women’s domestic space and these spheres involved different sets of virtues, responsibilities, and norms. Organizing a household, overseeing servants, and rearing children were a wife’s duties while the husband concentrated on great historical thoughts. This division of tasks was maintained also in the small number of households where both spouses were engaged in historical research. Scholarly wives bore the main responsibility of the household which meant that they were forced to compromise their historical pursuits in order to maintain the domestic orderliness. Alice Stopford Green, the wife of John Richard Green, took care of the daily chores while her husband focused on healing his ailing health and writing history. The couple spent their winters in France or Italy where the mild weather was beneficial for Green’s weak constitution. The annual moving of the household abroad and again back to London was stressful for Mrs. Green. She, for instance, packed and organized the transportation of reference works, studies, and copies of manuscripts so that they could continue their research when abroad. She also hired the servants in their winter destinations. In 1881 the couple decided to spend the winter in Mentone, France, where they rented a gorgeous villa high on an olive tree covered hill and with a beautiful view to the sea. Settling comfortably down in their paradise and returning to research took a while because Alice Stopford Green struggled to find decent servants – and even worse – an accomplished cook. She was particularly anxious about the latter because the lack of a proper cook seemed to upset her weak husband causing a severe drawback in his recovery.
Hiring a reliable servant could become a trial, but this was not only because the available hired hands were all just lazy or incompetent. Sometimes the scholarly households broke all the norms of middle-class respectability and lived beyond every accepted social convention scaring off young servant girls seeking employment. The scenario was certainly unusual and curious, but it is precisely what Liisi Karttunen and Henry Biaudet experienced when they tried to employ a housekeeper in Rome just before the First World War. The unmarried couple had lived several years in a boarding house when they decided to rent an apartment in Prati, near the Vatican Archives. To save money, they agreed to share the apartment with two young Finnish men residing then in Rome. The quartet quickly concluded that they needed a servant to clean and cook for them, but finding a housekeeper was easier said than done. Their household appeared too suspicious and unconventional for most of the young maids they interviewed. Indeed, an unmarried woman lived together with three men and had an affair with one of them. Moreover, she worked full-time outside the home and went around the town unescorted. Certainly, any respectable, God-fearing young Catholic maid wished to have nothing to do with such a progressive, free-spirited home. After several candidates turned down the offer, the Karttunen-Biaudet household eventually found a brave enough servant who was not put off by their unorthodox relationship and bohemian lifestyle.
When Alice Stopford Green had finally found a suitable housekeeper and a cook, she continued to manage many household tasks. In like manner Liisi Karttunen stole a moment from here and there to fulfill the gendered domestic responsibilities. While she emphasized her dedication as a professional historian with the detailed accounts of her daily research routines – from going to the archives early in the morning to working diligently till late in the evening with her notes and texts – she did not forget to mention that she also took care of many small chores such as making tea and darning the socks of the male members of the Finnish research expedition. Both women were also involved in their partners’ research by assisting them in diverse, often manual, scientific toils. The female aid in scholarly pursuits was so common that it should be counted as one of the daily domestic responsibilities of a historian’s spouse. This behind the scenes assistance in research efforts is, however, so significant that it calls for another blog post sometime in a near future.