Back in August, I wrote an article in response to a rant on iO9 about how steampunks and other historical re-enactors only concentrate on the lighter, shinier side of the past and ignore the grimy, pestilence ridden side of it. You can read the article here.
Words by Andrew Knighton
Steampunk and servants
Given the eras in which much steampunk is set, it’s surprising that servants don’t play a larger role in the genre. After all, the Victorian age was one in which personal service was widespread. The upper and even middle classes were saved from the grubby tasks of cooking, cleaning, tidying and gardening by armies of politely servile working women and men. Yet we seldom see this reflected in steampunk.
Which raises the question of why, and whether we could do more with servants in steampunk.
The presence or absence of servants often goes largely unmentioned in steampunk stories. Sometimes the adventurers aren’t well enough off to afford their own servants. Sometimes circumstances are such that they would hardly have a servant with them – after all, who brings the chamber maid on an Amazon expedition or fetches the butler for a rooftop chase? Sometimes the servants simply fade into the background.
Avoiding the awkward
So why aren’t servants shown more in steampunk?
One reason may be our discomfort at the social divisions involved. As steampunks we want to see the ideal of a past age reinvented, and that ideal is more egalitarian for us than it was for the people of the time. Dashing adventurer Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms can only run around being dashing because of the people forced by social and economic circumstances to cater to his whims, but that’s a lot less fun for us to think about.
There’s also an element of agency – the extent to which the characters determine their own fates. A servant’s life is largely dictated by someone else, and this makes it harder for them to be the active and exciting protagonist of a story, or even a prominent villain.
Making servants work
But there are ways to make this work. Cosplay and roleplay games often feature butlers and maids who are as active and exciting as their employers. This involves ignoring some of the reality of how class divisions worked, but if we can reinvent the technology of the past then why not the social practices too?
Gail Carriger makes good use of servants and manual labourers in her Finishing School novels. The soot-stained crew working in the flying school’s engine room provide a contrast with the upper class characters studying above, while the automata enforcing night-time curfews bring a fully steampunk solution to the issue of service.
There are plenty of different ways to make servants central characters in steampunk stories. Doing so adds more variety to the stories, and a more authentic reflection of society in the age of steam. So whatever your steampunk creation, whether it’s stories, costumes, crafts or songs, think about whether there’s a place in it for servants.
More information about the Author can be found on his webpage: Andrew Knighton