‘The Copstock Foundation: estab. 1860 for the benefit of all honest and faithful superannuated maidservants in the city of Westminster, the Board to meet twice a year, on St. Dunstan’s Day and St. Andrew’s Day; solicitors Messrs Wycombe and Wycome, 3, King’s Bench Walk, original trustees T. Wycombe of the same address, H. McIntyre and W. Blackburn, Esquires.’
The foregoing, being the soberly stated intention of the aims of the Copstock Foundation, represents the backbone of this novel, The Faithful Servants. The ensuing results, that unfold over a period of decades, represents the hilarious, often raucous outcomes that illustrate Margery Sharp’s story-telling maxim: Nothing Is As It Seems.
The Faithful Servants is very much a book for the present, if you enjoy serialized dramas of the British class divide such as Upstairs Downstairs, or Downton Abbey. The novel presents another journey—a zesty one a la Margery—through the ravages of war and social change, from the Edwardian era to the end of the second World War. It is a colorful social history paraded before us as no one has quite styled it before.
Actually, The Faithful Servants is a brilliant idea as a storyline, and would get my vote (in the hands of a talented screen writer) as the best choice of Ms. Sharp’s books to be serialized as a BBC miniseries. There are many wonderful gems here to be mined from the rock.
Flaws? Yes. It is one of the least liked of the Sharp novels. It is lacking in the warmth, love, and tender moments of a Downton Abbey-esque story, while delivering on saucy humor, clever twists, and subtly ludicrous scenarios.
But first…the plot:
Jacob Arbuthnot is an aging gentleman of means on his deathbed in 1860. The fact that he has no perceivable heir lends some Dickensian drama to the event. In reality, he is just a crafty old womaniser intent on disappointing his smattering of slightly attentive relations. In a cynical nod to the fact that his housemaid, Emma Copstock, has ‘serviced’ him for years, he leaves his fortune, not to her, but in the form of a trust called The Copstock Foundation. Its sole purpose—perhaps born of equal parts altruism and cynicism–is to benefit aging female domestic servants cast out upon the world without a shilling once their usefulness to the ‘big house’ has gone.
‘So old Jacob diddled relations and mistress alike; and achieved for himself a small niche in the pantheon of London’s philanthropists.’
Thus, over the ensuing decades The Copstock Foundation keeps barely financially afloat on old Jacob’s initial bestowal—while a steady stream of bedraggled, ribald scrubwomen and housekeepers, port-pickled cooks, dessicated governesses, shabby, shuffling lady’s maids and other colorful recipients come in for their share of a timely ‘fiver or tenner’.
Oh, the stories they have! Oh, the surprising lives they have lived while ‘faithfully’ doing their unlovely business in the lower regions of the big houses! They give back to the trustees who hand out the charity a surprising wealth of knowledge about London’s below-stairs world. With few exceptions, they are also, despite the terms of the trust, anything but ‘honest and faithful’.
Yes, it soon becomes obvious, within the first few pages, that the term ‘faithful servants’ in the title of this novel is irony. If you are thinking of the endearing Mr. Hughes and Mrs. Carson types from Downton Abbey, I hope this review will help put your expectations to rest. Margery Sharp’s bunch of Faithful Servants are rather unscrupulous, cunning, and even capable of murdering their unsuspecting employers.
The KIRKUS reviewer has this to say:
The Faithful Servants. . .Or, a Sly Look at the Infrastructure of British Society Over the Past Hundred Years from Footman to Au Pair Girl — this is much livelier than what’s been going on at the Bellamys lately, and strictly beneficent nonsense for Miss Sharp’s gentlewomen. When Jacob Arbuthnot dies in 1860, he does not leave his estate to his less than attentive next of kin, but forms a foundation for superannuated female servants. Actually there’s not much in the pot so it’s mostly a question of handing out fivers whether to a governess Miss Quartermaine, who retires to Sapphic comforts in a basement with a Miss Xavier; or poor Marged Evans, accused of poisoning her employer; or the illegitimate daughter of old Jacob’s housekeeper who wants considerably more. But in time, lady’s-maids disappear, cooks move up and there are only scrubwomen, jolly types, left in these annals of occasional philanthropy. And who knows just what will turn up — arsenic in a tea caddy, a parure of emeralds in a chamber pot, or an applicant in the bed of a Foundation Trustee? Like that fiver, just enough for an evening’s entertainment.’
The reference of the Kirkus reviewer to the Bellamys is certainly no accident, given that Margery Sharp kept an eye on the popular media and often wrote short stories for mainstream women’s magazines. The serialized story of the aforementioned Upstairs, Downstairs, in which the lives of upper class Bellamys (Upstairs) are played against the goings on of their servants (Downstairs), no doubt played a role in the creation of The Faithful Servants.
Upstairs, Downstairs began in 1971, (British release) and enjoyed a successful run through 1975. Ms. Sharp’s The Faithful Servants was likely conceived of during this time, and it was published in 1975. As mentioned, it has some vulgar moments (the event of the fourteen year old girl being offered up as a plaything is particularly repellent) and some of those events mirror a bit of the soap opera-esque shenanigans that took place in Upstairs, Downstairs. (Read here for an excellent overview of this series).
I have a feeling that the two brilliant women creators of Upstairs, Downstairs, Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, would have enjoyed many aspects—likely inside jokes that only a Brit might catch—of Sharp’s own take on the two sides of the green baize door.Ms. Sharp’s focus on the Upstairs, Downstairs divide has been zoomed in, warts and all, as it were.
‘It was odd how the Copstock Trustees always seemed to get themselves involved with women. Or perhaps not so odd; women were so to speak their business. But Jacob Arbuthnot had never envisaged a Grand Duchess or a Mrs. Applebee or a Mrs. Partridge turning up, still less a Barbara Allen. It was a pity; the old satyr would have been amused.’
Speaking of amusing, the Copstock Trustees certainly are—although they don’t realize it. The faces of these gentleman change through the decades, reigns of control pass from father to son, but they are all of a fairly similar number-crunching-middle-class-salt-of-the-earth aspect. Sometimes gallant, sometimes suspicious, sometimes naive, always dutiful; their ill-advised ‘involvement’ with this wily group of women never turns out for their betterment. But it does lead to some outrageous situations, as only Margery Sharp could devise. (read here for some of my notes on this recurring stereotype of men—the stockbroker/solicitor/civil servant/banker, etc.— portrayed in Sharp’s novels, and how they are often pitted against the zany, chaotic female element.)
Margery Sharp was never more neat and concise in her writing than when she was speaking of deeply felt historic change. There are fewer of these moments in this particular book, but some telling quotes occur from near the end:
‘When the Second World War ended the Copstock Foundation wasn’t even a cockle-shell or an ailing babe. It was a caelocanth, or creature that has outlived its age. For now a new phenomenon arose: that of a generation of women in quite prosperous circumstances who preferred to do without servants at all. Their husbands executives or stockbrokers, they had in a charwoman for the rough and took over the cooking and lighter housework themselves, and instead of hiring governesses dispatched their young children to playschool. It was a domestic revolution that produced nothing but good. Instead of feuding with servants, or living in actual fear of them, as their mothers and grandmothers had been used to, or making fictitious friends of them, they simply did without them. So a maid’s room could be turned in to a study, or a spare room, and th wives advetnrued into French Provencal cookin, or Spanish, or Italian. The typranny of the dinner gong was abolished, and a breath of freedom blew like revivifying ozone through the British upper middle classes.’
Butlers, or for that matter, any male staff, were disqualified by reason of gender for handouts from the Trust. But Ms. Sharp does make this incisive comment regarding them, and manages to infuse a brief homage to all the young men that went off to that first terrible war:
‘Butlers were of course a mafia who hired and fired at their own sweet will. They were also apparently immortal…Yet to do them justice it was essentially they who kept the big houses in full bloom, so that the 1914 London season was more brilliant than ever.’
Then came a day in August when the whole world turned upside down and the footmen went forth to war. To the credit of the party-givers, they sent their sons too forth to war; indeed couldn’t have stopped them going forth to war, though what began as a gay adventure ended on the Somme.’
Margery Sharp had a favorite word: ‘diddle’; it usually means a mischievous overturning of expectations. When she wrote The Faithful Servants, she was seventy years old, and world weary. She had lived through the some of the worst periods of history her country had seen.
Mr. Partridge, a character in Sharp’s novel Harlequin House, expressed his philosophy this way:
“It’s like this: there’s times when civilization–all over machines and by-laws–annoys me. I like to diddle it. And in my quiet way, I do.”
In her later, more mature works Margery Sharp had great fun ‘diddling’ with expectations. The warm, delicious humor of her earliest books changed to a sassy, almost bitter tone in her later books. Still, there is a great deal of mirth and verve in The Faithful Servants. Oh, and did I mention this would serialize beautifully….?
Notes and additional comments:
First Edition-London, Heinemann, 1975
First American Boston, Little, Brown, 1975
The various characters, as they are introduced, result in ‘episodes’, as such, for they seem more like they were written to be serialized. Some are hilarious, full of clever twists and mockery and sly allusion. Sometimes this is in the form of literary allusion, as when the hapless George Hilary is taken in by ‘The Grand Duchess Victoria Amalie Catherina’ and her faithful maid, Amy Iles. They are imposters, of course, but fully aware of the power of Lord Byron. George Hilary visits the ladies in their shabby dwelling, ostensibly to test out their remarkable story, and is treated to ‘a little poetical soireé,’ as well as many sighing references to former glory. The choice of reading Byron’s satirical masterpiece, Don Juan, where the supposed womaniser is actually easily duped by women—is deliberate.
‘George was quite startled. He’d heard of Byron, of course—wasn’t the chap a classic?— but had no idea classics were so, well, meaty. In fact to innocent George Lord Bryon’s verses were scarcely fit for a lady’s ears, let alone her lips…’
Poor George. Poor Copstock Trust fund. He was no match for these two, who were actually smuggling jewels right under his nose.
“So then I mentioned,” went on Miss Iles, “how though you and the other Trustee were perfect gentlemen, I hadn’t liked that Mr. Sharpe at all. He seemed almost suspicious of my good faith! Her Highness was quite distressed for me, and said I must never allow myself to be so insulted again. Your visit, Mr. Hilary, has been as surprising as welcome….though I admit another five pounds would have been welcome too! No, no, Mr. Hilary,” remonstrated Miss Iles, as George felt for his sovereign-purse, “not on such a purely social occasion as this!”
“Take it as a mark of the Trust’s esteem,” said George, “for so loyal and faithful a servant.”
“Well, if you insist — !” said Miss Iles.
For further reading, here is a delightful review from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock