When I was researching my first novel, “Prisoners in the Palace,” the most interesting details came from the lives of servants. In the lives of the rich, famous and powerful – -there are always invisible servants. We don’t know anything about them — but they knew everything that was happening around them. In Prisoners, Liza, a young lady discovers that life belowstairs is as treacherous as it is above. A major subplot in my novel was based on a single line in a book about Victoria’s childhood that “A maid, Annie Mason, had been dismissed for lewd and immoral behavior.” How could I not explore Annie’s story?
All my other novels touch on the servant question too. Emily Dickinson confided the bulk of her secret stash of poetry to her maid’s care — asking her to burn them after Emily’s death. She gave them to Emily’s sister instead. The servant that the Bronte’s had was important enough to them that when she fell on the icy cobblestones of Haworth (and nearly died of exposure), the Bronte girls insisted on nursing her themselves. And Louisa May Alcott included a fictional devoted servant, Hannah, in her semi-autobiographical Little Women — because the March/Alcott girls’ life was too tedious without domestic help.
Check out this fascinating article about literature’s fascination with the help from the New Yorker.