Of the old Parisian servant types we have met the soubrette and the nourrice, both of whom are described with some condescension in Octave Uzanne’s book “The Modern Parisienne”. While he may be mocking the two, he has nothing but respect and sympathy for the hard-working femme de ménage:
The femme de ménage (charwoman) is at “six sous per hour” a godsend to the bachelor. She has come from some little provincial town with her husband, who works in a factory in the suburbs, or she is the wife of a cab driver or of a porter at the Bonmarché or the Louvre magazines. Her life is a hard one. After she is swallowed in the whirlpool of Paris, she can rarely return to the country. She dies exhausted by hard work, worn-out by poverty and child-bearing. Sometimes, when the children are self-supporting, she can go out to service.
She is generally from thirty to fifty-five years of age. In the morning at about seven o’clock—as soon as her husband has left for his work and her children for school—she goes to her “Monsieur”, carrying his milk, his morning rolls and other provisions, calling for his newspapers and letters from the concierge, with whom she exchanges gossip. Being good at heart, as are all the working people who do not come too much in contact with the bourgeoisie, she is interested in her Monsieur’s welfare, although she allows herself a bit of gossip with the concierge on the terrible “creatures” who come to see him. She is attentive to his wants, sees that his breakfast is good, and that his boots shine like mirrors. She is amiable and willing, and he would have no occasion for finding fault if she had not, unfortunately, a mania for tidying away all his things into places where he can never find them.
If Monsieur is a painter, a journalist, or an author, she has the greatest respect for his work. She considers his manuscripts and books, his canvasses and engravings, as things to be treated with boundless veneration. She is immensely proud to serve an “artist”. Sometimes she will venture to ask him to write a letter for her. She will consult him about her family affairs, especially on any legal question, for the law terrifies her beyond measure.
When she returns home she has to see to her children’s dinner, to wash their clothes, to mend for the entire family. In the evening she must cook supper for her husband, who frequently comes home drunk, having spent all his wages, and turns to beating her. She endures everything passively, and she must go on enduring as long as her strength lasts. She is honest, tender, and devoted and all this for twenty or forty sous per day. She is typical of the working woman.
“The femme de ménage,” says a physiologist of 1840, “belongs exclusively to Paris. In the provinces she loses all her distinctive character.” It is from Paris alone, the Paris of resources and deceptions, that the femme de ménage springs. She is the servant of those who cannot afford any other, and who are not poor enough to dispense with one altogether. It is service at a discount, a bastard kind of servitude which sells itself by retail, which submits to the pains of slavery without any of its advantages, which suffers a change of master, humour and work at every moment of the day. She is, in fact, a poor woman who is hired either by the hour or the job just as one hires a cab. The femme de ménage is the most enslaved of all servants. However, this cruel dependence on every one and no one in particular is still independence in her eyes.