Friday, February 13

Directions to Servants

This was another accidental purchase from National's sale bins. I had been looking for poster paints, or something mundane like that when I strayed over to the piles of books under the "Under 100" tag. What first caught my attention was the ceramic marm with the wicked grin on the cover. Just one look and you know that she's up to no good.

So I picked the book up. Eighty-five pesos. How bad could it be?

The inner flap reveals that Jonathan Swift was not able to finish this work, and this is obvious when one gets to the latter pages. In the beginning, his directions were long and detailed. But when you get to the last pages, it could be as brief as a sentence or two. Take for example the very last entry:
Directions to the Tutoress or Governess

Say the children have sore eyes; Miss Betty won't take to her book, etc.

Make the misses read French and English novels and French romances, and all the comedies writ in King Charles II and King William's reigns, to soften their nature and make them tender-hearted, etc.
Kundi ba naman sign ang sangkatutak na 'etc.' diyan, ewan ko na lang.

Although it remain uncompleted until the time of his death, Directions to Servants still packed a powerful punch for a book that weighs in at 96 pages. The book takes the form of a handbook on manners, a euthenics for the non-gentlefolk. It "addressed to each servant individually, Directions to Servants is the ultimate upstairs/downstairs battle. With scathing wit, Swift pits master against servant in an endless struggle for order, frugality, and the best bits of the roast. His servants are lazy, profligate, and acquisitive—always on the lookout for a shilling to be made on the sale of leftovers, or a half-bottle of wine to share with the cook."

Directions to Servants is a hilarious read, right on the money, scathing and entertaining all at the same time. It allows us to laugh at the follies not just the servants, but also at the masters and mistresses to whom they devote their time and loyalty. One notices that this isn't mere criticism at the inefficiency of the service industry, but in a way also shows us that if one is born to a family whose family is beholden to a master, there is a very slim to none chance that one will ever escape that plight.

Swift gives the longest directions to the Footman, whom he considers to have the biggest chance of escaping the life of drudgery. The footman should flatter the ladies by memorising all the lines of the plays he watches at the theater, must know how to play a musical instrument, dress nicely. If done well, he might capture the heart of a young lady, and that's his ticket to a more leisurely life.

Then one reads in the Bio Note and in the Foreword by Colm Toibin that when he was a young man, Swift found himself in the household of one Sir William Temple, tasked with reading aloud to his patron and keeping the family's accounts in order.

Kaya naman pala.

Jonathan Swift has the "K", as some would say, to spread thick the critique on the service industry since he was once one of them, lucky enough to get himself an education and grow old and bitter and almost insane. Did early life as a servant cause his bitterness? Or was it the education and the realization that without this chance of "bettering" oneself, generations are fated to be beholden to families who came into the world with a title and an estate? The connections, of course, aren't that tenuous.

Read an excerpt from Directions to Servants: "Rules that Concern All Servants in General."

No comments: