Poor With a Maid

literature-of-servantsI’m a poor author, and I’m beginning to wonder: when am I going to get the housekeeper that so many of my favorite books have promised me? Jo March, the girl who made me want to become a writer, grew up with a housekeeper named Hannah. That, even though Jo’s sister Meg lamented their family’s humble lot on page one of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, saying, “It’s awful to be poor.”

In my favorite Jane Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters lost everything because women were not allowed to inherit. Then Willoughby dumped Marianne because she had no money. Yet the impoverished Dashwoods had three servants at Barton Cottage!

 

I will never forget the moment in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when Francie Nolan’s teacher told her not to write about poverty:

“Now I’m not a snob,” stated Miss Gardner. “I do not come from a wealthy family. My father was a minister with a very small salary.”

(But it was a salary, Miss Gardner.)

“And the only help my mother had was a succession of untrained maids, mostly girls from the country.”

(I see. You were poor, Miss Gardner, poor with a maid.)

I know that the point author Betty Smith was making was that Miss Gardner (despite her supposed education) was out of touch and had no real idea what it was like to live in deep poverty, and I hope that’s the main reason it has stuck with me. Because the other reason is the hope I’ve never been able to shake: that someone could have a “very small salary” and not only afford a maid, but even be expected by society to use those meager dollars to hire one.

Maybe if we got rid of cable…but who wants help scrubbing the bathrooms, sweeping the floors, and washing the clothes when you can have cable?

If money were my priority, I probably could have found a way to make a better living. I’m not unhappy about our humble life. We have all we need, I love to write, and I sometimes even have time to swab the toilet. Still, I wonder if I might have been motivated to choose a more lucrative profession if I hadn’t read so many classics involving people who were supposedly poor, or even ordinary middle class, yet still managed to keep domestic employees. I mean, didn’t that also reflect the reality of the authors themselves? If David Copperfield had domestic help, then you can bet Charles Dickens did. Yes, he was an unusual success, but he was an author, so I like to pretend he wasn’t all that different from me.

If the favorite authors of my youth hadn’t romanticized poverty to some extent, maybe I would have been a more realistic adult today. How did I know I would someday have to choose between having a dusty house for an old friend’s visit to town or putting off the rewrite of Chapter 13 of my novel?

Maybe I’ll dust and vacuum only the guest room, and then reward myself by rewriting only half of Chapter 13. Because another thing fiction has taught me—besides how cheap housekeepers are and how they’re always part of the family and delighted with their lowly lot in life—is how fun it is to put a bad guy on a steamboat from Hong Kong to San Francisco, force him into steerage, and pour seawater in after him. Why would I want to clean house, when I can start a riot in Old Mexico with my bare fingers. Why waste my imagination wishing I could hire a maid, when I can instead imagine what it might be like to be an immigrant so poor that I’d be grateful just for a chance to be one?

 

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