Britain has been rediscovering its love affair with domestic dramas featuring domestics. Recently we have enjoyed the spectacular Downton Abbey, which ended on the brink of war with Germany, and the recent updated version of Upstairs Downstairs, which finds a penniless debutante flirting with Mosley, Ribbentrop, and Nazism. BBC4 even did a survey of this history of fascination in last night’s “Maid in Britain”, exploring the differences between lives of domestics on and off TV. For me, currently writing about German domestics, fascism, and racism in wartime Britain, this is right up my street. Maybe it’s a little too close to my street.
Novelist Amanda Craig tweeted today about “Maid in Britain” and commented that domestic servants were still working in Britain, but that now they were all immigrants. Of course, there have always been immigrant domestics. Upstairs Downstairs offered us a Jewish parlour maid who was previously a lecturer in Frankfurt, made unemployed by the antisemitic Nuremberg laws and unmarried by the politically-motivated arrest of her husband. (She soon comes to a sad and convenient end once she begins to notice all the fascists in the house) My book is set in the women’s internment camp during WW2, when thousands of German women were arrested for being – German. It didn’t matter how long they had been in Britain or why they were here, but one was more likely to be arrested if living near a coast or working as a domestic servant. Due to the notorious fear of “Fifth Columnists”, the Daily Mail whipped Britain into a fearful frenzy, convincing all that Hitler had planted plaited Nazi girls into service throughout the land. At his signal, each German maid would whip off her apron and show her true colours. At the time, I’m sure it seemed a realistic fear. War makes us all fearful of our enemies. Perhaps having someone live in your house and do your work who is not family will always make for a nerve-wracking relationship, especially if war is declared and they are suddenly your enemy. Whether or not the wholesale internment of a race was justified would be debated in the House of Commons throughout the war, and rightly so.
The other side of the story is that these German domestics were also sometimes Jewish, as in Upstairs Downstairs. Tribunals in 1939 had tried to process and assess German women, but their categorisation was often based on who vouched for the woman in question and what the judge’s own biases were. The mother of one former internee recalls the judge in her mother’s trial saying to her, “Aren’t you a little bit Jewish?” so that he could say that she was a “genuine refugee from Nazi persecution” on her ID. Simply being Austrian, Catholic, and anti-Nazi wasn’t enough. These women were interned as well, and housed alongside Aryan German women. And so, my book begins.
Bloomsbury House in London is well known as a source of support for refugees arriving in Britain. They also published a variety of manuals to ease the transition. My personal favourite is “Mistress and Maid.” It featured helpful chapters such as “Make Yourself Familiar with English Ways” and “Rules for the Home,” detailing the types of uniform that maids should expect to wear and offering tips like, “You will notice that the Mistress usually states her requirements in the form of a request. These are not requests, and should be carried out as orders. It is not correct to argue with the Mistress.” This is in the 1930s. To be fair, the Mistress of the house was also given guidebooks to help her work more effectively with her new bewildered staff. Her booklet was entitled, “Entertaining our Refugee Guests.” Which makes it all sound quite charitable until the question of who was a refugee and who was not made relationships far more complex. For more on the history and economics domestic servants, there is a new book Migration and Domestic Work by Helma Lutz. But I wouldn’t advocate googling “German maid.” It leads to some quite nasty pop-ups.