From geishas to servants in six steps
Time for another Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate in Kew and for once we are starting with a book I know.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden was the first novel I read which gave me an insight into Japanese culture. I don’t remember anything about the plot, I just recall that the book described extensively how geishas are trained to act as entertainers and hostesses. As part of their role they are expected to demonstrate great skill in Japanese classical music and traditional dance as well as witty conversation.
Conversation of a very different kind is at the heart of The Housekeeper and the Professor by the Japanese author Yoko Ogawa. It’s a novella set in modern day Japan about the relationship between a Professor who was a brilliant mathematician until he was injured in a road accident and the woman who becomes his 10th housekeeper (all the previous holders of that job found him too strange). They bond over prime numbers and number sequences.
For an alternative model of a housekeeper let’s turn to one of Daphne du Maurier’s best known novels, Rebecca. In it we encounter Mrs Danvers, head housekeeper at Manderley, the grand mansion in Cornwall belonging to Maxim de Winter and his dead wife Rebecca. Mrs D (we never learn her first name) is a fearsome looking character with a “skull’s face” of high cheekbones and sunken eyes. Not exactly the kind of person to make Maxim’s new wife, a young and naive girl, feel comfortable in her new home, especially when, at every stage, Mrs D is ready to point out how poorly she compares to the glamorous Rebecca.
Maxim met his new wife while on holiday in the French Riviera. It’s during a holiday in that part of the Mediterranean that one of the characters in my next book, meets her future husband. Amy March is the youngest of the four sisters in Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women. She’s vain and self-centered, the daughter least likely to sacrifice her own pleasures for the good of others. But on holiday she matures and reaches a decision about her artistic ambitions and her future. Her reward is to be courted and hitched to Laurie, a rich and handsome boy who lived next door to the March family.
The original readers of Little Women were of course left in no doubt that this is a book designed not just to entertain but to instruct them about how to be better women, ones who put domestic duties and family above self interest. To help them in their journey they have the wisdom and good sense of their mother and a copy of John Buynan’s Pilgrims’ Progress.
Bunyan’s work, published in 1678, has been described as the first novel in English. It’s a claim that’s been disputed — there are at least nine other novels which have been similarly described. Ian Watt, a leading literary academic, argued in favour of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published more than forty years later.
The lecturers on my English degree course disagreed and put their weight behind Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded by the printer Samuel Richardson. I don’t know if you’ve ever read this tale of the trials and tribulations of a beautiful 15-year-old maidservant called Pamela Andrews. Her master is a country landowner who pesters her, kidnaps her and tries to seduce and rape her multiple times. Eventually he rewards this robust defence of virtue by marrying her and introducing her into high society.
The story sounds interesting and it was entertaining for a time but I remember struggling to get through it because it felt so repetitive and became rather dull. One of reasons I didn’t care for this book may have been that the version I read is substantially different from the one Richardson wrote. Apparently this novel went through revision after revision because Richardson was extremely sensitive to criticism (of which there was a lot, usually on the grounds of morality or manners) so kept making tweaks. In an article marking a new Oxford edition in 2000 more closely based on that original, John Mullen showed how these changes robbed the book of a lot of its vitality.
For readers in the eighteenth century, however, this book was certainly different to anything else they had ever written. Most notably its ‘heroine’ was a low-bred creature, a mere servant girl, when they were accustomed more to reading about courtly ladies and women of virtue. Some of them were scandalised at the idea that mere servants could become part of a higher class. Who was this upstart some of them questioned?
Pamela may have been one of the first characters in fiction to be shown moving well beyond her station in life and adopting manners felt more suited to her betters. But she was not the last, which brings me another maid servant and my final link in the chain. Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring puts the young girl Griet into the home of the painter Johannes Vermier. Griet is an intelligent girl who shows she has an eye for art. But Vermeer’s wife suspects the girl is up to more than mixing paints when she is alone with the painter in his attic studio. Chevalier could simply have written a story about an illicit affair but she made the novel far more interesting by focusing on the restraint between master and servant. And in the end, Griet does get her reward….
And so we reach the end of a chain which has followed a trail from Japan to America, France and England and ended up in the Netherlands. I never expected this chain to take this route but that’s half the fun of the Six Degrees meme, you never know where it’s going or where it will end.