The Tuesday just gone, it being her 190th birthday, I wondered in passing if it might be time to cancel Louisa May Alcott, much-loved author of Little Women.
My dilemma arose from one of her lesser-known works, a newspaper article dated March 1874, a copy of which had been submitted by a correspondent.
Under the headline “The Servant-Girl Problem – How Louisa M. Alcott solves it”, this was a cheerful account of an “experiment” she had recently carried out to replace her Irish-born housemaid with a more competent American model.
Here she explained the background: “For several years Irish incapables have reigned in our kitchen, and general discomfort has pervaded the house. The girl then serving had been with us a year, and was an unusually intelligent person, but the faults of her race seemed to be unconquerable, and the winter had been a most trying one all around.”
The piece continued: “My first edict was, ‘Biddy must go.’ ‘You won’t get anyone else, mum, so early in the season,’ said Biddy, with much satisfaction at my approaching downfall. ‘Then I’ll do the work myself, so you can pack up,’ was my undaunted reply.
“Biddy departed, sure of an early recall, and for a month I did do the work myself, looking about meantime for help. ‘No Irish need apply’ was my answer to the half-dozen girls who, spite of Biddy’s prophecy, did come to take the place.”
Unsuccessful applicants included “a fat Scotch woman”, who although acceptable on racial grounds, proved unwilling or unable to descend to the cellar, and “lumbered away after a short stay”.
But in time, Alcott hired a refined young lady called “Miss S”, so pleasant she was also permitted to join the family at table. Alas, even the reduced labours Miss S was required to perform soon proved too much.
“She was not very strong,” Alcott lamented, “for much work had done for her what it does for most American women in her case, and by lessening her health had impaired her usefulness. Finding that the washing was too hard for her, I got a stout neighbour to come in and do it.”
Surprise, surprise – the stout neighbour turned out to be Irish too, and after initial disdain was happy to take the strain from the delicate flower who both served and adorned the Alcott table: “Sure, Miss, dear, it’s a nice little crater she is and mighty helpful to ye, lave alone her being a true lady. I’m wishing ye’ll get another as good when she goes.”
And go Miss S did, within months. But undaunted, Alcott hired two others on the same principle, as both servants and companions, after which she declared her qualified “no Irish” policy a success.
The part she sounds defensive about in her article is not the casual racism – that was so common as to be unremarkable, clearly – but the radical idea of dining with the staff:
“Some ladies may object to having a stranger at the table, yet it is better to have a lady there than an ear at the keyhole and an Irish tongue to gossip of family affairs to the neighbors’ girls.”
Alcott was indeed radical for her time. She was both feminist and abolitionist, hence the fact that her sentiments on serving girls first featured in a blog called The Reconstruction Era (“exploring the world the Civil War created”).
But do her outdated attitude make the case for an Alcott boycott (as it were)? Well, no.
First, we must allow that such views were standard in the Boston of her time. Besides which, Irish-Americans – not always behind the door themselves when it comes to racism – can look back now and reflect that they quickly rose above such discrimination.
As Jack Nicholson’s Boston mobster put it in The Departed (2006): “Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a fuckin’ job, we had the Presidency - may he rest in peace.”
In which spirit, it would be interesting to know what in later years happened to Alcott’s “Biddy”, as she may or may not have been known in her country of birth.
So widespread were Irish housemaids in the US then that “Biddy” and “Brigid” became metonyms, to save their employers the trouble of remembering actual names. Maybe, being “unusually intelligent” and having advanced keyhole listening skills, this one went on to become a writer too.
As for Alcott’s concern about servant girls eavesdropping and gossiping with the neighbours, that was clearly misplaced. Her own unguarded journalism has shopped her to posterity. If as well as being a famous novelist, she is also now remembered as a bit of a bigot, it is not thanks to anyone on the other side of the keyhole.