In Georgia Wood Pangborn’s 1911 short story “Broken Glass,” the narrator, a fussy mother living somewhere in rural America, is reproached by a mysterious figure for having scolded her young Irish nursemaid. As the story opens, Mrs Waring and her friend Mrs Blake are discussing their respective nursemaids; the former admits with a sigh that

“[…] I’m afraid I’ve got to let Aileen go. […] [W]hen I went to find [Aileen and her child] yesterday afternoon over by the empty Taylor cottage, they were playing where a window had been broken and there was broken glass everywhere. It was like dancing on knives. My spine shivers with it still.” (93)

Such criticisms were by no means unusual in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Louisa May Alcott displayed unpleasant attitudes towards Irish servants (Ganobscik-Williams 39-40; Young n.p.), and Harriet Beecher Stowe repeatedly referred to the Irish as “raw” and uncouth. As is evident from an 1850 letter describing a “healthy young Irish woman” who came looking for work just as Stowe’s baby became sick, negative attitudes to the Irish were deep-seated enough to survive contact with evidence to the contrary. Stowe employs the woman as a nurse, and “tho she didn’t know how to do any thing & was very slack & slovenly yet as the baby throve […] upon her milk I have kept her these three months” (486). Stowe here expresses an opinion that vacillates uneasily between admiration for the positive results of the woman’s work and a settled criticism of her knowledge and appearance.

In Pangborn’s story, Aileen’s distracted, unprofessional disposition similarly prejudices Mrs Waring against her—but a second avatar of Irish femininity soon intervenes. While walking home, Mrs Waring sees a “woman’s figure,” who she assumes to be “Mrs Magillicuddy who came every week to help with the washing” (95). The woman is, however, a stranger with a vaguely Irish accent, who berates Mrs Waring for her harsh treatment of Aileen, stressing how hard and cold Aileen’s room is, insisting that her clothes are inadequate, that she has been unfairly reprimanded for minor mistakes in her work, and that one of the male servants harbours impure thoughts towards the unworldly young girl. When Mrs Waring “lean[s] forward to pluck at the shawl which the other held about her head” (97) to try to uncover her identity, there is a mysterious flash of light, followed by a profound darkness, during which the Irish woman’s voice takes on preternatural qualities, warning the younger housewife not to ask who she is. Terrified, Mrs Waring rushes home and up to Aileen’s room, full of contrition and compassion, and we are left hoping that the latter has learnt her lesson and will from now on treat Aileen, not like a unsatisfactory servant, but like one of her own.

In this respect, the story again echoes Stowe’s sentiments in a rather more sympathetic essay, “Servants” (1865). Here, Stowe urges her readers to “imagine our own daughters between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four, untaught and inexperienced in domestic affairs as they commonly are, shipped to a foreign shore to seek service in families […] without mothers to guide them” (504). Her (middle-class, Anglo-Protestant) audience should, consequently, take on that maternal, guiding role themselves. Pangborn’s uncanny Irish woman therefore frightens into Mrs Waring what Stowe, over forty years previously, had tried to convince her readers of—the common humanity (and femininity) of Irish domestic workers and their American-born employers. What this indicates is a gradual relaxing of attitudes towards the Irish as the century progressed—an increasing willingness to imagine them as “our own daughters,” rather than as coarse-faced, unwashed, superstitious foreigners. Even that superstition itself is transformed in Pangborn’s story. The elderly woman who chastises Mrs Waring is effectively a banshee, a spectral figure warning of suffering and death, but one whose message can help avert this suffering by preventing Irish girls from falling into poverty and vice and by allowing them to break free of crushing stereotypes. The story therefore allegorises the process where such Irish immigrants begin to climb the ladder to middle-class respectability; it is about the integration of the Irish into the American population—their transformation from dangerous outsiders to beloved innocents, and from there (implicitly) to full citizenship.

I initially read this story while researching my first monograph, American Women’s Ghost Stories in the Gilded Age (2014), which focuses on the role and depiction of material culture and domestic objects in turn-of-the-century ghost stories by women writers from the United States. These objects are usually relegated to the background in critical appraisals of such texts as Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892), with the wallpaper (or upholstery, clothing, furniture, or decorative items) reduced by scholarly interventions to little more than a projection of a troubled protagonist’s psyche. Doing so, I argue, fails (or refuses) to take account of the centrality of objects and spaces to domestic ideology, defining and enforcing particular forms of behaviour and selfhood: those who stray from these norms are not merely tormented by the relentless weight of this ideology but essentially blamed for and positioned as the sources of their own pain.

In the process of researching this book, however, texts such as Pangborn’s made me realise that I too was subject to a blinkered view: I was looking directly at things but not at the significant population of fictional characters whose job it is to care for them—that is, domestic servants. The vast majority of these fictional servants are vaguely Anglo-American; a small number are African-American. [1] In only a few notable exceptions, such as Emma Frances Dawson’s “Singed Moths” (1897), are they depicted as Irish-American. More recent texts set during the long nineteenth century have begun to acknowledge the extent to which American domestic servants during this time were predominantly either African-American or Irish-American. Where the legacy of slavery in particular is concerned, thanks to books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), the spectres of racial oppression are now more visible than ever in popular culture, not least on the small screen, where everything from True Blood and American Horror Story to more overtly historical programmes like The Alienist and Salem have been quick to foreground disenfranchised African-American and Native-American characters. Now as much as in the nineteenth century, however, these characters are frequently depicted as domestic servants, highlighting their marginalised position in both the household and the plot but also perpetuating that marginalisation—rarely are these characters the central protagonists. [2]

In recent fiction, however, matters are somewhat more progressive. From contemporary slave narratives such as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996) and its recent adaptation (2017), both slaves and servants are increasingly seizing the narrative voice and dominating the plot. Nonetheless, it’s important not to conflate those characters working in menial conditions in the aftermath of slavery and genocide with those who were newly arrived in America and had opportunities to become self-made wo/men. Admittedly, the Irish were certainly not at the top of the pecking order in the nineteenth century; they were racialised, and that racism could be vicious. At the same time, as Pangborn’s story highlights, it could also be overcome—skin colour and hair texture did not constitute socio-economic barriers for the Irish, and working their way out of low-paid, semi-skilled jobs like domestic service therefore remained an option for them, in a way that it wasn’t for African-Americans, or somewhat later for the Chinese-American and Latinx communities.

As an Irish scholar working on depictions of domestic labour in gothic texts from the United States and beyond, these core distinctions leave me with some difficult choices to make in terms of the direction and scope of my work. To focus exclusively on Irish-American servants could forestall accusations that I am erasing the vital distinctions between those undertaking such work under very different conditions, or appropriating a history of suffering that is not my own. At the same time, such a narrowed focus would itself be an act of erasure, failing to take into account an entire demographic, and ignoring the extent to which contemporary representations mine the past as a means of discussing the legacy of slavery and racism (see Harrison n.p.) and the inequalities inherent in the “American Dream.” For me, and for now, it seems important to situate depictions of Irish servants in America as but one population among several who worked in the homes of others, particularly if I am to gain a fuller picture of attitudes towards domestic labour both in the long nineteenth century and in our own ongoing engagement with a troubled past.

 

Notes

[1] For examples of the former, see Emma Frances Dawson’s “A Sworn Statement” (1897), Edith Wharton’s “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” (1902), Josephine Daskam Bacon’s “The Children” (1913), and Ellen Glasgow’s “The Past” (1920); examples of the latter include Charles W. Chesnutt’s “Po’ Sandy” (1899) and Bacon’s “The Unburied” (1913).

[2] This is certainly the case with Tituba in Salem (2014-17), who is repeatedly short-changed by a narrative more interested in her white mistress, or the Irish servant girl who appears in a flashback in a 2018 episode of Van Helsing (2016-19).

 

Works Cited

Ganobscik-Williams, Lisa. “The Intellectualism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Evolutionary Perspectives on Race, Ethnicity, Class.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer, edited by Jill Rudd and Val Gough, Iowa City, U of Iowa P, 1999, pp. 16-44.

Harrison, Sheri-Marie. “New Black Gothic.” LA Review of Books, 23 June 2018, lareviewofbooks.org/article/new-black-gothic/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Pangborn, Georgia Wood. “Broken Glass.” Restless Sprits: Ghost Stories by American Women, 1872-1926, edited by Catherine A. Lundie, U of Massachusetts P, 1996, pp. 91-98.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Letter to Sarah Buckingham Beecher, 17 December [1850]. The Oxford Harriet Beecher Stowe Reader, edited by Joan D. Hedrick, Oxford UP, 1999, pp. 483-88.

—. “Servants.” The Oxford Harriet Beecher Stowe Reader, edited by Joan D. Hedrick, Oxford UP, 1999, pp. 494-506.

Young, Patrick. “When Louisa May Alcott Endorsed ‘No Irish Need Apply’.” The Reconstruction Era, 3 Jan. 2020, thereconstructionera.com/when-louisa-may-alcott-endorsed-no-irish-need-apply/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.