Underplots in the drama: Servants and the problem of paternalism in the novels of Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Gaskell

Date of Completion

January 2002


Literature, English




Writing during a period of dramatic social change, Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Gaskell convey the excitement and anxiety of a world in social flux. Both writers were attracted to idea of radical change while also expressing nostalgia for a traditional society governed by a paternalistic ruling class. My dissertation explores this contradiction in light of the way these authors foreground servant characters in their novels to examine the tensions produced by social transformation and conflicting values. ^ Servant characters enable these writers to voice the contradictions inherent in the popular paternalist philosophy of their times because the very situation of domestic servitude embodied so many contradictions. Servants made up the largest category of workers in England by the nineteenth century, and their labor was essential to the economic and social functioning of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British society. Yet paradoxically, although these servants lived in the same houses as their masters and were an intimate part of these masters' lives, they were expected to be socially invisible. Standing in the margins of both family and society, servants were necessary for the smooth maintenance of both. ^ Through their depictions of servant characters, Edgeworth and Gaskell expose the potential for dehumanization and corruption in the paternalist philosophy. Both authors go so far as to depict servants who are stronger, more successful, and more capable than their masters and mistresses, completely undermining the notion that these people are in need of the fatherly guidance of their “betters.” ^