Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1722/Italian Servants versus English

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From The Examiner.


The servant difficulty, now under so much discussion, is supposed by English people to be confined to their own country, but, if the grumblers could but know what people in a remote part of Italy suffer from these necessary evils, they would cease to murmur, and would congratulate themselves on their superior good fortune. It is true that in the great towns of Italy servants may be found superior in some respects to the greatest "treasure" that may fall to our lot in England. They demand but little pay, eat next to nothing, are temperate, intelligent, pleasing in manner, not particular about what is or is not their place, and can work well when absolutely obliged. On the other hand, they never do anything at all if they can possibly help it. They are afflicted with hydrophobia to an extraordinary extent. They never tell the truth, on principle, even when it would be to their own advantage to do so. They have no morality amongst them. Such a thing as a "character" is never even asked for with an Italian servant. They are vindictive to the last degree, and if you dismiss one summarily you not unfrequently risk your life. They will bear a good deal, however, that English servants would by no means endure. Their masters may swear at them, half starve them, pay them nothing, if only they leave them free to parade the streets in the evenings on Sundays and feast-days, and have their fun. The one necessity of their life is amusement.

It may be said that if there are drawbacks there are also counterbalancing advantages in this state of things, and that Italian servants in great towns are no worse, on the whole, than their English fellows. That may be so; but let Englishwomen who live at home at ease read the following narrative of the experience of a family in the country. "When we first decided," the narrative runs, "on leaving the beaten track and setting up a campagna in a remote place, any difficulties about servants were the last that occurred to us. There would be servants of course in the towns and villages around us, who, for a trifling addition to their wages (usually, we heard, about five francs a month), would be delighted to come to us. Then there were plenty of peasants to do the rough work, who, in time, would learn to be good servants. What could be simpler? So we reasoned in the innocence of our hearts. We began with a cameriera, who announced herself a first-rate hairdresser, dressmaker, cook, housemaid, etc., and a bright, good-looking peasant girl of seventeen, whom we set to work to 'educate.' The cameriera not only displayed absolute ignorance on all the subjects in which she declared herself a proficient, but turned out to be one of the most disreputable characters in the town from which we took her. The lady who had recommended her, when remonstrated with, merely said, 'What would you have? They are all bad characters.' Having dismissed Maria, we concentrated our attention on the young peasant. She was intelligent, and could learn everything except civilization, but she was a barbarian whom nothing could tame. In vain we gave her shoes and stockings. She never would keep them on for five minutes together. In vain did we attempt to teach her to modify her language, or to treat us with any sort of respect. One day she flatly refused to do any more work, so had to be dismissed. She departed barefoot and rejoicing to the wretched home whence we took her, and where she and her sixteen brothers and sisters had never by any chance had enough to eat.

"Next we tried protégée of the nuns. The best pupil in a convent instituted for the benefit of foundlings was confided to our care. Concetta had never been outside convent walls. All she had learnt of a practical nature was the art of embroidery, in which certainly she excelled; but then we did not want embroidery, and we did want the beds made, and the rooms swept and dusted. It was again a case of raw material to be worked upon. We hoped to be more successful this time. The girl was remarkably clever and not intractable. She soon learnt to be useful, and after sundry gentle hints discovered besides that it was not the correct thing to come into the sitting-room of an evening and join in the conversation, squatting on the floor, and that, however amiable might be the inclination to take me round the waist and embrace me, it should be restrained. My husband thought it his duty to let her know that the pope does not sleep on straw, and is not in a state of actual starvation. Dunque come Vittorio! was her astonished exclamation, when the beauty and luxuries of the Vatican and the state which still surrounds Pio Nono were described to her. 'And they persuaded me to send him all the money I earned by my embroidery! It was too bad.' These lessons were only too well learnt. Concetta's sentiments towards the well-meaning nuns who had brought her up underwent a change, and the good ladies were destined to be cruelly disappointed in their best pupil. She left us just as we were beginning to rely upon her services, to place herself in the town. Soon after we heard of her dismissal in disgrace for having concealed a young man in a cupboard. Such was the result of the convent training!

"It would be impossible for me to enumerate all our disastrous experiences in the matter of servants, or how many we tried in the course of two years. The worst we were obliged to dismiss, and the better ones would not stay even for triple the usual wages in a place where they could get no amusement. They left us always at the most inconvenient time, and at a moment's notice. Why they could not simply give warning, and leave at the end of a month, or of a fortnight, we never could discover, but for some inscrutable reason their departure was either the result of a laborious intrigue, or what appeared to be a sudden panic. This last mode of proceeding is so well known in the country as to be called a capriccio.

"The ingenuity displayed in concocting a plausible excuse for immediate departure was sometimes remarkable. Marietta or Teresina would suddenly appear on the scene with red eyes, dishevelled hair, and every symptom of distraction. In her hand an open letter. 'Signor! Signora!' she exclaims, sinking on her knees before us. 'Behold this letter! What is to become of me?' The letter, all blotched and scrawled, written evidently in haste and grief, is to implore Marietta, in pathetic terms, to hasten at once to her stricken mother or dying father. She must depart instantly! Of course she will come back again. 'Oh, yes, to-morrow.' She is so sorry to leave us even for a moment; she loves us so; and kissing; us on both cheeks (my husband's sex does not exclude him from this style of salute on solemn occasions), she goes off in the: wagon which has been waiting for her in the turn of the road, and by which her carefully-packed trunk has been conveyed; to the station the day before. Another favorite device is an impatient lover. A letter is produced from the ardent young man, declaring that he can wait no longer. His beloved Lucia or Chiara must fix the wedding-day. Smiles and blushes are the stage business this time. She hopes she has given satisfaction, would not for the world leave us, but Giuseppe is so pressing, and they have waited seven years, and so on. She is quite prepared to state his age, profession, the name of his maternal grandfather, or any other piece of information that may be required concerning Giuseppe; but when we make any attempt to ascertain the truth of these glib statements, we find that the person concerning whom we have heard so much, and whose letter we have read, never existed at all. Nothing daunted, Lucia then declares that if he never existed he must cruelly have deceived her, and she must immediately go in search of him — whereupon she departs. This style of leave-taking is irritating, but at least there is a certain amount of warning. It is more embarrassing to wake up one morning and find that you have not been called because your housemaid has been taken with a capriccio and has disappeared in the middle of the night, or to be in the middle of a fortnightly wash and see your laundress running down the road with her bundle under her arm, leaving the clothes in soak. It is awkward, too, when you are very hungry, and want to know why dinner is not ready, to be told that the cook has been missing some time, and it is supposed that she has run away. When the wet nurse is taken with a capriccio, and leaves the baby crying for its food, the situation is something more than awkward.

"Having made the discovery that capriccios usually occurred immediately after the monthly wages had been paid, it struck us that it might be better to pay the servants quarterly. The result of this experiment was that for three months we got on without the usual casualties, but at the end of that time there was such a general flight that we were obliged to harness the pony-carriage and drive twenty miles to the nearest habitable hotel, where we remained some time before we could again muster an establishment. We were not alone in our misfortunes. Our neighbors condoled with us, but assured us that we were no worse off than they. One of our friends was driving his own carriage from one town to another, with a servant behind; when he arrived at his destination, and looked round for the man to take the horses round to the stable, he discovered that the rogue had slipped out behind and returned to his native village, which they had passed on the way." These are but a few anecdotes of one family's experiences, but may serve to show that English servants are at least not worse than those of other countries.