Monday, November 28, 2011

From the Top Shelf - At Home

I've been reading Bill Bryson's At Home, a history of how houses and the various rooms within them came to be. I'm a big fan of Bryson's work; his writing is always entertaining and humorous, but I didn't expect to find spanking references. Imagine my surprise and delight when I came across one in a discussion about the hard lives of servants.

Like the Carlyles, but nearly two centuries earlier, Samuel Pepys and his wife, Elizabeth, had a seemingly endless string of servants during the nine and a half years in which Pepys wrote his famous diary, and perhaps little wonder since he spent a good deal of his time pawing the females and beating the boys--though, come to that, he beat the girls quite a lot too. Once he took a broom to a servant named Jane "and basted her till she cried extremely." Her crime was that she was untidy. Pepys kept a boy whose principal function seems to have been to give him something convenient to hit--"with a cane or a birch or a whip or a rope's end, or even a salted eel," as the historian Liza Picard puts it.

A hard life indeed. Later, in the chapter devoted to the evolution of the drawing room, there is a description of the extravagant life of a wealthy landowner, William Beckford.

In 1784, Beckford became the centerpiece of the most spectacularly juicy scandal of his age when it emerged that he was involved in a pair of tempestuous, wildly dangerous dalliances. One was with Louisa Beckford, the wife of his first cousin. At the same time, he also fell for a slim and delicate youth named William Courtenay, the future ninth Earl of Devon, who was generally agreed to be the most beautiful boy in England. For a few torrid and presumably exhausting years, Beckford maintained both relationships, often under the same roof. But in the autumn of 1784 there was a sudden rupture. Beckford received or discovered a note in Courtenay's hand that threw him into a fit of jealous rage. No record exists  of what the note said, but it provoked Beckford into intemperate action. He went to Courtenay's room and, in the slightly confused words of one of the other houseguests, "horsewhipped him, which created a noise, and the doors being opened, Courtenay was discovered in his shirt, and Beckford in some posture or other--Strange story."

From Hermione's Heart


Aimless Rambling said...

I guess low wages weren't enough of detriment for being born without a silver spoon in your mouth.

ronnie said...

I like the sound of that book Hermione. I think Pepys diaries would be a fascinating read.

There were certainly a lot of scandals to do with our gentry. Some very juicy and interesting.

Thanks for sharing these extracts.


Hermione said...

Sunnygirl - Right, they were the downtrodden masses, so let's heap more indignities on them.

Ronnie - I'm curious about the diary now too. Not just about plagues and fires, it seems.


kiwigirliegirl said...

im very curious now too. It was a hard life for the servants in those days :(

Florida Dom said...

I suspect the gentry had their scandals because they could. It is like the normal rules of society didn't apply to them and they could do whatever they wanted to.


Hermione said...

Kiwi - Fifteen hour days were not uncommon. At least they were fed, clothed, and had a roof over their heads.

FD - I think you're right about that.