The Survival Guide to Being a Gothic Servant

The Gothic servant’s life is a perilous lot. We are all too often swept up in the fortunes of the owner of whatever mansion/castle/ruined abbey we’re currently lodging in. These fortunes range from the inconvenient and untimely appearance of giant limbs, to capture by bandits, death in a skirmish, imprisonment, and, worst of all, hearing endless (and I do mean endless) badly written sonnets to the tune of an ill-played lyre. But the job market is a nightmare, positions are hard to find and needs must when the devil drives. It is our aim at the Henchman’s Union of Gothic Servants (HUGS) to provide the most up-to-date advice on how to survive and thrive as a Gothic lackey, whether your employer is a Machiavellian villain with a penchant for isolated mountain tops or a young woman of indeterminate fortune, appealing mien and distressed circumstances. We have therefore produced the following introductory guide, which we hope will prove useful. (We should, however, note that we do not admit legal responsibility for any inconvenience, injury or untimely death suffered because of or despite this advice. A general guide is no replacement for the deployment of one’s own judgement in specific circumstances).

1. Loyalty

There is no single universally successful approach to loyalty. Providence is generally on the side of the virtuous within a Gothic situation but the guiding hand of a divine ordinance does not always extend to the lowly servitor of the Gothic heroine or hero. While loyalty therefore may be ultimately rewarded, you may also be called on to make a ‘heroic sacrifice’, to shelter a distressed young woman for an indeterminate time (unwaged), or share the penury and general tribulations affecting your employer. Loyalty to the virtuous, therefore, is a gamble but if you are willing to become an adept in activities such as sword-fighting, sneaking, playing a musical instrument as a distraction, temporary pirating or illicit letter carrying and take on extra rescuing duties, this could go extraordinarily well. Betrayal may also work in your temporary favour, ending in the receipt of riches or other rewards from nefarious ne’er-do-wells but there is also a significantly higher chance of getting stabbed in the face.

The question of loyalty to a martial, lascivious or otherwise cunning villain requires a different set of considerations. As providence is rarely kind to villainess types in a Gothic situations, loyalty to the end is rarely a sensible option. Check for the following to identify an ‘evil’ Gothic employment posting: considerable isolated property, often in ruins; non-disclosure agreement; open invitation to world domination; unexplained source of wealth; a mysterious and elusive past for your employer; an all-black wardrobe. We make no judgements here at HUGS and there are certainly bonuses to a villainous life, including, but not limited to, treasure, irregular employment, carousing and being allowed to descend from the pinnacle of virtue (which is frankly exhausting to maintain). However, the risks are commensurately greater and discernment is vital. Not, I note, moral discernment but rather the ability to tell when exactly to jump ship (occasionally in a literal sense). We recommend having an escape plan, a cache of purloined or legitimately obtained coinage, and an eye to the main chance. If a particularly pale and wan young woman with an awkward habit of musical composition appears, uniting your star to hers via the medium of rescue can be a one-way ticket to fortune and acclaim.

2. Comportment

In general, wealthy employers demand two vital characteristics from their employees: foolishness and invisibility. There are exceptions to this rule and you may wish to try and attract attention through valour, musicality, or a bold lack of superstitious dread (volunteering to enter the ‘haunted wing’ is a popular method but may result in kidnap or execution by whoever is masquerading as a ghost). Here at HUGS, however, we recommend feigning foolishness and servility in order to be able to operate freely and to reduce the risk of unfortunate intervention in whatever your plans may be. You don’t want anyone knowing how cunning and capable you really are. Just in case.

Practising invisibility (until pivotal moments where you are able to slide from the shadows dramatically or unobtrusively as required) is less difficult than it might, at first, appear. The wealthy Gothic employer has an inbuilt deficiency in the ability to recognise the working class as a real living human and therefore will be fairly unaware of your comings, goings and other activities as they consistently mistake you for ambulatory furniture. You may wish to invest in a wardrobe of sombre colours and sneaking shoes and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the geography of any location in which you find yourself (including secret passages, back stairs, servants’ quarters and trap doors).  

Foolishness or ignorance may be manifested in a number of ways but we recommend playing to expectations. The wealthy expect a lack of emotional range, tending mostly towards ‘devotion to the employer’ and ‘fear’. They also anticipate either blockish silence or excessive garrulousness. Therefore, we recommend the following:

  • Stock up on a range of superstitious stories, the more illogical the better.
  • Practice upping your words-per-minute to achieve maximum verbal content in a minimum amount of time.
  • Develop the habit of inserting fillers between each sentence of relevant information (the more, the better).
  • Perfect the art of the irrelevant tangent about the weather/your grandparents’ warnings/what happened to your friend Bob
  • Work on an assortment of ‘panic tones’ and don’t forget to expand your range of screams, titters and homely exclamations.

Alternatively, you can choose the path of the monosyllable and the lumpish or enigmatic stare.

3) Role

The pre-requisites of your role will, of course, depend upon your job description. You can find handy guides to the normal roles of serving maids, butlers, gatekeepers, guards, cooks, lady’s maids, house-keepers etc. in guides produced by less specialist associations than HUGS. Here, however, we give you a breakdown of the specific requirements of a Gothic placement in any of these jobs. In some cases, the requirements of the position will depend upon whether you are serving a hero or villain. Where this is the case, two distinct sets of duties or expectations will be noted.

A Serving Maid Carries A Cup Drawing by Mary Evans Picture Library
‘Serving Maid’ by Mary Evans

Serving maid: We are here distinguishing between serving maids and lady’s maids as two broad categories (we are aware that these do not cover the nuances of actual servant positions but, you will find, Gothic households are rarely so rigorously ordered). As a serving maid, you will be ill-paid and put upon and are unlikely to have a major role in the house or the life of your employer. If working for a villain, you will be required to spy upon any heroines (this may enable a switch of allegiance if the circumstances are propitious); serve poisoned food and/or drink; unobtrusively aid in the removal of bodies; and keep victims of conventual or aristocratic oppression imprisoned and scantily fed. We strongly advise an early change of allegiance or abandonment of employer due to the lack of opportunities in this position. The only real possibilities of gain are from bonuses for illicit activities and thievery. We recommend both.

We cannot recommend taking this position in the train of a hero or heroine. It will almost exclusively lead to dismissal upon the inevitable turn of fortunes of your employer, when the dastardly villain usurps their inheritance. If you find yourself and your heroine/hero in this position, we recommend betrayal. Keep a weather eye out for a likely looking Machiavellian manipulator and act accordingly. You may put up a show of reluctance at the first offer of a bribe but don’t put up too much of a show. You are a minor character and are all too likely to get stabbed.

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Wadsworth in Clue

Butler: Regardless of employer, it is the butler’s job to look both lugubrious and portentous in equal measure. You will want to develop an unreadable countenance which leaves everyone unsure as to whether you’re a murderer, an inscrutable villain or simply bored. Appearing suddenly and catching people within the beams of your repellent gaze is a necessary skill to be deployed in relation to employers, guests and indeed other servants. In your dealings with other servants, you must unleash at regular intervals an unnerving stare and should look at them all as though they were worthy of nothing but your indifference or disapprobation. An uncanny knack of knowing everything that is going on in the house (eavesdropping may not be very stylish but it is very useful) is also an expected characteristic and people should be largely unaware of your allegiance. A truly proficient Gothic butler will be simultaneously engaged in three levels of double-cross at any one time.

Regency History: A Regency History guide to The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann  Radcliffe
Blanche escapes the bandits in Mysteries of Udolpho

Gatekeeper: Your job will largely be composed of the mundane task of allowing passage into the castle/fortress of either the friends or enemies of your employer. Your moment of importance will likely be brief but your actions pivotal to the success or failure of the hero/villain. If you are employed for the protection of the good, you are likely to die in a moment of heroic sacrifice defending the gate against sneaking or openly confrontational intruders. We do not recommend. Alternatively, you may be open to bribery and may survive and thrive by allowing yourself to be suborned into facilitating illicit access to the castle. We suggest an immediate retreat afterwards with your ill-gotten gains. Be satisfied with what you have, don’t aim higher. Traitors regularly get betrayed.

If you work for a villain, your moment of importance will likely relate to the proposed entrance or exit of the hero/heroine. You may choose to facilitate this entrance/exit. In either case, we recommend a swift departure. You may choose to switch allegiance and attend any escaping party if allowing egress. If you have enabled an attack on the villain’s fortifications, you may wish to remain local in case of success. You can then step forwards and join the victors and receive the inevitable praise and associated benefits. Alternatively, you may choose to stay loyal to the villain, in which case your duties will require more cunning and manipulation and will be, frankly, much more fun. Sharpen up your acting skills because you’ll be double-crossing the heroine. Proffer help to escape. Lead her into a trap. Profit.

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Servants attempting to lift the giant helmet in The Castle of Otranto

Guard: The duties of a Gothic guard are simple. Some fighting or general resistance may be required (either against attacking forces or escaping victims) but the majority of your duties will include walking around, calling the hours of the watch and witnessing supernatural manifestations (or pretending to). Discretion is the better part of valour, by which we mean, deploy the techniques depicted above (screams, titters, garrulous superstition) in response to any of the following: ghostly visitants, floating lightening, giant limbs, walking skeletons, unidentified groans, demonic apparitions, gargantuan helmets. Don’t confront anything. Your job is to tell other people about it and make as expeditious an exit as possible.

Mrs. Lovett Picture - Movie Fanatic
Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd

Cook: Whether working for the hero or villain, your job will inevitably entail a great deal of catering, either for hordes of disguised banditti or impromptu parties, picnics and acts of charity. As a Gothic cook, you will inevitably find yourself engaging with poison at some point in your career for the elimination of the good or the evil. Or both? Why limit yourself? We therefore recommend familiarising yourself with common and rare poisons and experimenting with flavours to cover the taste in order to make your poisoning activities as discrete as possible. If you shrink from murder, you will want to investigate the use of soporifics. You should also familiarise yourself with a range of catering needs, including the delicate palate of the heroine, the meat-loving requirements of the average henchman, the saucy delicacies required by the dashing villain, and the brutal and barely sustaining diet of those who have been wrongfully imprisoned in the castle dungeons or tallest tower.

BBC - Press Office - Fingersmith Elaine Cassidy
Maud and Sue in Fingersmith

Lady’s Maid: Whether you serve a villainess or a heroine, you are the power behind the throne. Your mistress depends on you either to enact her evil plans (villainously) or to counteract her terrible decisions and dedicated passivity (heroically). If you serve a villain, the chances of success are relatively high and we recommend loyalty and building a working partnership (ideally with sapphic overtones). You can, and should, tap out before any demonic deals come to the point of payment. You will be required to offer counsel, spy on victims, deceive and double-cross any heroines or naïve heroic types, become proficient in both the brewing and administration of poisons, and lure attractive young persons into dens of iniquity/lairs of murderers.

As lady’s maid to a heroine, you serve a pivotal role in her life, and loyalty, dependent on their heroic success, will often bring significant rewards. You will, however, have a lot to put up with. Your mistress will, inevitably, believe herself to be significantly more intelligent, emotionally aware and informed than you. Maintaining a façade of ignorance, servility and patience will be a significant and wearing task as you put up with unreasoning demands, sharing the penury and tribulations of your mistress and put up with her patronising tone and mini-lectures. This is without mentioning the forced exposure to terrible poetry, ill-played musical instruments, off-key singing, endless philosophising about pretty trees, and demands for your appreciation of the world’s most insipid watercolours of ‘happy peasants’. You must resist the urge to indulge in a satisfying, but ultimately self-defeating, outburst. It will also be your duty to advice your heroine despite her belief in your inability to think. You must try to let her believe she came up with the idea and must therefore be discrete in sowing the seeds of good decision-making. You will also be required to take care of the practical elements of escape, including, but not limited to: packing, carrying things, liaising with rescuers, attracting the attention of virtuous looking strangers, booking inns, buying hats, planning routes, investigating the castle, getting to the bottom of pivotal rumours, and walking while your heroine rides. Resist the urge to pull her off the horse unless she is, at the time, carrying her wealth upon her. In such a situation, do a cost-benefit analysis and act accordingly.

Mrs. Danvers, the Menace of Manderley – Once upon a screen…
Mrs Danvers in Rebecca

House-Keeper: The role of the ‘good’ house-keeper is largely a dull job, involving standard duties and the encouragement of your heroic employer. If they are being usurped, you may have the option of changing allegiance or alternatively acting as a spy in the house under new ownership. It is far more likely, however, that you will be temporarily ejected and should therefore have a nest-egg to carry you through this period. Where you got the nest egg from is entirely your own business. You should also make sure to have used your reputation as a loyal servant to the virtuous for contacts with well-meaning and charitably minded local gentry who, if you look soul-meltingly feeble enough, can often be cajoled into an allowance. They don’t need to know exactly how many people you have looked at pleadingly yet stoically, a victim of fate and fortune, unwilling to complain but clearly in need.

You will note that I have not talked about ‘good’ or ‘villainous’ employers in this job. A position of respect and authority in its own right, it is for you to choose a virtuous or a devious path, not be led by your employer. We obviously do not actively promote iniquity but, we cannot help but remark, the life of a murderous (sapphic) housekeeper is by far more fun. The sapphic is, of course, optional but we do recommend that choice. The house is yours to control, the keys are in your pockets and not your employers, it is you who rules the servants with an iron rod. Whether you remain obsessively devoted to a previous mistress, seduce a new one, engage in a cat and mouse seduction/murder plot against a new owner, manipulate the family through devious stratagems, turn the house into a smuggling stronghold beneath your employer’s nose, or simply haunt the house in a suitably creepy manner is up to you. Use your discretion. Enjoy yourself.

As you can see, there are many options for the Gothic servant and henchperson. Some positions must be worked towards, others are entry level. Decide upon your aims and goals and choose the path most conducive to them. Remember, wherever your loyalties lie, your first duty is to yourself. Survive and thrive is our motto. Don’t forget it.

Published by SamHirst

This started off as a story blog to share the little fictions that I like to write but it's turned into something a bit more Goth! I'm Dr Sam Hirst and I research the Gothic, theology and romance and at the moment I'm doing free Gothic classes online! We also have readalongs, watchalongs and reading groups. And I post fun little Gothic bits when I have the chance. Find me on twitter @RomGothSam

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