The Internet Personified: Rebecca, Downton Abbey and the revenge of the servant
Goodbye to all that
Well, well, well. Here I am in your inbox again, and it’s been less than a week. But, friends, I’m OVERFLOWING with things to tell you, I’m suddenly feeling super chatty again. I’ve started to be able to predict how my pandemic moods go: energetic and talkative and productive will be followed by what’s-the-point-of-it-all. Sometimes it’s a daily thing, sometimes my good or bad moods last the week. Maybe I was always like this and I’m paying more attention now because that’s what we do now, we pay more attention.
The Regular World—the Old World—isn’t coming back. At first, we hated everyone who used the words “the new normal” but then suddenly there was no need to. Normal is now, this is normal. Some of my skills are atrophying from lack of use: six months barely driving my car so I had to force myself to sit behind the wheel again, soothe my nerves with cheesy recorded affirmations. I don’t talk to anyone except K, my mother and my friends, so my spoken Hindi is a clunky rustbucket of a vehicle, stuttering each time I try to remember the words for “I hope you have been well” as I did around my friend’s nanny the other day. Just that I hope you have been well in Hindi was so hard for my tongue to get around, but you see, I don’t go anywhere that needs Hindi, I don’t see anyone that speaks it, except our gardener, and he goes straight to the garden after we have both namaste-d. I’m losing this life experience slowly. I began thinking of the next time I take a flight, what if it’s next year, what if I go a whole year without flying, me, who used to zip to the airport every couple of months, will I still know what to do, will I still be an easy, frequent flyer or will my anxieties take over there as well?
I had to use my stuttering Hindi to have a long and awkward chat with our maid yesterday. Najma’s been with us for six years, the first three when we lived within a neighbourhood that was easy for us to access, the next when she took two buses and a metro to reach us. It was a long commute, but she likes us and we like her, so we made it work, but now that’s not possible any more. Two buses, a metro ride. Think of the people, strangers, think of them inhaling and exhaling and talking and laughing and coughing and sneezing and touching their faces and touching the seats and wearing their masks below their noses and think of the crush on the platform, all those people standing shoulder-to-shoulder, all that recycled air, inhaled through one mouth, exhaled through another. When I said, “Maybe you shouldn’t risk it” she sounded relieved. We had danced around each other a lot in this conversation: what do you want no what do YOU want. But in the end, we understood that this was it, this was how our relationship ended, she’d keep me updated if she got a new job, we’d pay her for a while until she did. We owe her that much, but I feel sad when I think of not having her in my life any more. She wasn’t the World’s Most Efficient Person, but she loved us and she loved the cats, and she cooked like a dream, and she knew how to do everything after just one tutorial, and after six years, you get used to each other’s kinks.
I began to think more about Najma and help in general when I did a Downton Abbey binge recently. It was extra-soothing for me, because no matter what their problems were, and there were always huge, seemingly insurmountable problems, the butler would always make sure everything was running as per status quo. An average Downton Abbey episode can be summed up like this:
Lord Grantham upstairs: oh no change is coming
Carson the butler downstairs: i echo the sentiments of my lord in every episode in not at all obvious parallels drawn between our lives.
Lady Mary: I am bitchy but also beautiful and traditional.
Lady Edith: I am sad and passive aggressive.
Countess Grantham: I am American and I smile a lot.
Anna and Mr Bates: we are having adventures by ourselves!
Mrs Hughes-the-housekeeper: I guess I’ll… marry the butler?
Mrs Patmore-the-cook: I act as a mother figure to the kitchen girls and I shout at them in a heart-of-gold kind of way.
Daisy-the-undercook: I am incredulous!
Branson: I’m the pet revolutionary!
Mrs Crawley next door: I stand for progress because I am middle class!
The Dowager Countess: I am really the best thing about this show, and somehow I went from being shocked that my granddaughter went out with a man unchaperoned to being totally cool about my illegitimate great-granddaughter, so I’m actually more progressive than my only son.
In all this, you’ll notice, if you’re a Downton stan, that I have not mentioned Thomas or the brief Miss O’Brian. That’s because Downton rewards those who conform: master and servant. Thomas, the gay footman, is mean and bitchy to boot, so he gets his comeuppance, learns his lesson and has his reward. Miss O’Brian is so evil, she’s hard to watch sometimes with her peery eyes and her line of a mouth, but she’s gotten rid off too, packed off to America with no farewell scene for us either. In a famous early scene, Countess Grantham is pregnant after several years and three daughters, and the whole family is delighted. Miss O’Brian is the Countess’s personal maid and somehow she gets the idea that she’s being sacked so when she’s helping Cora out of the tub, she places a bar of soap just where a questing foot could find it and slip and fall, which she does, and loses the baby, which turned out to be a boy after all. In another, Miss O’Brian is caught mid-bitch by her employer who is just shocked at this disloyalty, and Miss O’Brian stands her ground and says, “I’m as entitled to my opinion, milady, as anyone else.” But the thing is, she’s not.
In Rebecca, the MOST TREMENDOUS NOVEL about a bad marriage and a big house ever written, it’s obvious who the villain is as soon as the second Mrs DeWinter enters the door. Besides the pompous butler and the oafish footman and the silly personal maid, there’s only one person who really matters, and that is—no, not Rebecca, she’s dead—Mrs Danvers. Mrs Danvers and our nameless narrator are the opposite poles of each other, both obsessed with the dead woman in different ways. Mrs Danvers is a bad servant because she refuses to stay a servant, she wants the second Mrs DeWinter to know that once she, who is now described as having a “curious skull-like face”, once she was loved, once she was cherished. Once, the mistress of the house looked forward to her step in the hall, would call her on the phone to give instructions, gave her a nickname and took her along when she moved to her married home. Why do we think Mrs Danvers is ominous just because she loved Rebecca? Wait, no, we don’t, do we? We think she’s ominous because she hates our narrator. But wouldn’t you hate our narrator too? Quietly, moving through the house as though she’s afraid of everything. Unable to even take the dog’s love for granted, let alone her husband’s. You, the butler, the maid, the cook, are in service because you think it’s a good job. By being close to powerful people, you can imbibe some of that powerfulness yourself. You are like the butler in The Remains of the Day, you see everything, you hear everything, you hold everything inside like an oyster with a pearl. How can you be powerful when the creature you serve is so mewling she can’t even say, “I’d like to sit in this room”?
In Downton Abbey, it’s a little simpler: the good servants, the loyal servants, the ones who toe the party line are rewarded, the bad ones are punished. This is not just about the gay footman and the devious ladies maid. No, there’s the season one maid who wants to become a secretary and is given no end of trouble for it. “Why why why” her colleagues keep asking her, what’s wrong with service? Later, she comes back as a guest, her husband is invited and she’s his plus one and Bitchy Mary and Bitchy Thomas the Gay Footman have to bring her down for it, rub her nose in the fact that once she served beneath the table she’s now sitting at. In a later season, another maid wants to go on to bigger and better things, she’s punished for this by getting a storyline where she falls pregnant and then has to find work as a prostitute. There’s a butler in the Christmas special who is not as loyal and commendable as a butler should be, and he is also punished for it. Meanwhile the Good Servants are given their rewards, Anna and Mr Bates live loyally through imprisonements, finally having their child and going to work together, all three of them. The cook buys a cottage. The butler and the housekeeper set up home together. One of the footmen finally gets a non-service job but only because he is meek and mild and knows his place.
No one likes the story of a scheming maid, the murderous butler, but so many of these upper class homes, even now, even here, operate on the idea that the people who serve you are not really people, they’re automatons, seeing everything, absorbing nothing. It’s only because the second Mrs DeWinter was somewhat of a servant herself that she noticed the eyes of those serving her. She was a pretty bad one, remember how much she hated her employer and mocked her, and conspired to be rid of her? Sure, Maxim was dreamy, but he was also the only alternative to a life spent in drudgery, where all women hated her. First her mother, who is barely mentioned, except to die quickly after her brilliant father, then the fat American upon whom she waits, then Mrs Danvers, then her new sister-in-law, then the grandmother… the list of the women who seem to set themselves against the new Mrs DeWinter are plenty, and I’m not even including the ghostly Rebecca.
The funny thing is that when I re-read the book this week, I realised Rebecca wasn’t really about Rebecca at all. Instead it was clear to me that everything was playing out in the second Mrs DeWinter’s head. She absorbs Rebecca, like someone putting on a costume, she longs for absolution from Rebecca, she’s obsessed with Rebecca, in short, and it didn’t take the villainous Mrs Danvers that much effort to sabotage her. The tools were all there, she just had to suggest a few things here and there and stand back.
The world doesn’t like a nasty woman—it did not like Rebecca. Strong and proud and fearless next to a husband, who, if present behaviour explains anything, likes his women to be children, it must have been so frustrating to be married to that. Some people can manage their frustration rationally, others take it out by manipulating people around them. Rebecca was the second kind of someone. She shrugged and said, “Sure, divorce me, but think of the talk.” He’d have rather lived with her death than the consequences of gossip.
The world doesn’t like a nasty servant either. Thomas, the gay butler, must have so many humiliations before he toes the line. The former-maid-turned-sex-worker must give up her child completely and only hope for glimpses of him. The chauffeur-turned-Earl’s-son-in-law must lose everything that’s close to him: his wife, his politics, his personhood, and live on, as a sort of eunuch in the house where he was first employed.
As for us, there’s a whole section of Indian people who are realising for the first time in their lifetimes that the floor doesn’t automatically mop itself, that dishes do not return clean to their places and the actual value of household labour that we were paying someone else too little to do.
I hope that’s a lesson that sticks.
You can buy Rebecca here.
Downton Abbey is streaming on Amazon Prime, Remains of the Day is on Netflix.
Netflix is releasing a new Rebecca adaptation in October.
This is a very long newsletter (I’ve been coming back to it all day!) so here’s a slightly shorter link list!
Clickbaity title but I found it useful: 8 secrets to a fulfilled life.
The life and death business of being a dog walker.
Have a great week!
Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you?Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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