Steampunks and servants

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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.

In this article, Andrew Knighton considers the use of servants in a steampunk universe and ponders why they might not be present in stories.

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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.

An absence
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.

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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


10 thoughts on “Steampunks and servants

  1. I had a similar rant to a friend that was very active in the SCA. You know, where are the thieves, the assassins, the beggars, the plague victims…? Everyone seemed to be a Lord or Lady. Of course the answer given was that the SCA was deliberately avoiding the grime and disease. Else I suppose it would end up looking like Game of Thrones, and I’m quite sure I don’t want to exist in THAT world. Maybe Medieval Fun-Land would be nice!

    I’m enjoying the steampunk genre, but not to the extent of cosplaying. If I were, though, I’d likely design a mechanic’s outfit. I have a fondness and respect for Wrench Wenches.

    1. Perversely, some of the most fun I’ve had in live roleplay games – the closest I’ve come to re-enactment – has been playing lower class characters. In a world of aristocrats and mighty heroes, playing the butler, the beggar or the guy who digs out the dung heap can make you one of the most interesting people there.

      I hope you get around to that mechanic’s outfit someday. I have a couple of friends who’ve done that sort of kit and it looked really cool, the mixture of gadgets and grease.

  2. I heard a radio interview a while back about the complete lack of servants in Jane Austen novels, and someone was going to write a version of Pride and Prejudice from a servant’s point of view. It’d be a very different story, I would guess.

    1. That’s an interesting point. Never mind all these re-writes that add zombies and vampires – how about some Austen re-writes that show the people who must actually have been there? I imagine that the marital concerns of the P&P characters might have looked rather petty to the people who had to change their sheets while struggling to make a living.

  3. I think they may get left out because they actually have to work for a living, and a 12-hour day at that, so they don’t have time to go on adventures. But, I also just finished Phoenix rising, and there is definitely a servant as well as street urchins who are employed by the heroin who get more than a passing mention. In the Cassandra Clare “infernal devices” series as well there are servants who play important roles in the plot and relationships. So the genre is definitely not totally devoid of the lower classes. That Pride and Prejudice rewrite sounds interesting!

    1. It’s great to hear that there are more examples out there than I’m aware of, and that they make use of a range of lower class roles. I wonder if anyone’s written a story yet with a steampunk hero version of the classic chimney sweep – who better to sneak into places and discover secrets than someone who can fit up a chimney?

      1. From what I know of actual chimney sweeps in the Victorian era, they were often under the age of 8 and forced up the chimney by older kids or their sweep overlord. That is where the expression “light a fire” under someone came from, if the kid wasn’t working fast enough someone would light a fire in the fireplace and they had to work faster or suffocate. Not exactly the way Mary Poppins portrays it, eh?

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