Most Regency authors have, at the very least, referenced or mentioned a lady’s maid in a story, even if we haven’t made her a confidant or important servant in our heroine’s life. She is often a useful character, who can be used to impart information about the household gossip, mend gowns in a trice, and coif our heroines, so they stun our heroes with their beauty. But would a lady’s maid be as influential as we authors sometimes make her in a story and was her position a respected one within the household?
A lady’s maid is often referred to in fiction as an ‘abigail,’ which was indeed a term used during the Regency period. The term abigail is in reference to II Samuel, versus 24-28 when Abigail refers to herself as David’s handmaid on four occasions. It is unclear why one lady might prefer to use one term over another, though ‘abigail’ in research is referred to as slang.
Regardless of whether her employer referred to her as a lady’s maid or abigail, the lady’s maid reported and answered directly to her mistress. She was referred to by her last name and was, at times, called by the honorary ‘Mrs.’ much like the housekeeper. She was even considered on rank with the housekeeper, despite the fact that her wages were approximately half that of the woman who ran the household.
An abigail was to be absolutely at the mistress’ beck and call. She helped her mistress bathe, dress, styled her hair, mended and ensured the mistress’ gowns were clean and pressed. She had to be trusted not only to keep her employer’s confidences, but also to care for the mistress’ jewelry. The lady’s maid fetched and carried, particularly when out on the town shopping with her employer. She also kept the same hours as her employer since she was required to help the mistress undress and ready herself for bed. The abigail could also be the eyes and ears for the mistress in the servants’ hallways when the necessity arose. Lady’s maids could be in the service of one mistress for decades and often cared for their employers when ill, which often made the lady’s maid a friend and confidante to her mistress.
Despite her position as a servant, lady’s maids were often the most educated and refined of all the female staff as her position required a knowledge of fashion, skill at hairdressing, a steady hand with a needle and thread, and more practiced manners and speech than most servants. In the absence of the housekeeper, a lady’s maid could be called upon to prepare tea and coffee for company, so she could not embarrass her mistress! It was also very fashionable to have French servants, though if a lady’s maid was not French she was required to have a store of French phrases committed to memory.
Was the life of a lady’s maid a good one? These trusted servants often acquired their mistress’ discarded clothing and traveled with their employer; however, the answer to that question likely depended upon the personality of the abigail’s employer. A mistress with the disposition of Caroline Bingley might be a nightmare, though a reasonable mistress might render the position a good one. In some ways, it does sound a lonely life as I can’t imagine much of the household staff befriending the servant who was the eyes and ears of the mistress below stairs!
Most of us would enjoy having a lady’s maid to press our clothes and fix our hair, but would you want to be an abigail? As for myself, I probably could not keep up!
Craig, Sheryl. Contrib. to Jane Austen Regency World Magazine.
Horn, Pamela. Flunkeys and Scullions, Life Below Stairs in Georgian England. Sutton Publishing. (2004).
Laudermilk, Sharon and Hamlin, Teresa L. The Regency Companion. Garland Publishing (1989).
Martin, Joanna. Wives and Daughters. Hambledon Continuum (2004).
Shapard, David M. (editor). The Annotated Pride and Prejudice. Pheasant Books (2003).