“Marianne’s [letter] was finished in a very few minutes; in length it could be no more than a note; it was then folded up, sealed, and directed with eager rapidity. Elinor thought she could distinguish a large W in the direction; and no sooner was it complete than Marianne, ringing the bell, requested the footman who answered it to get that letter conveyed for her to the two-penny post. This decided the matter at once. – Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 26
Footmen appear prominently in Sense and Sensiblity, 2008, and Emma 1996. They stand at attention in a row with the other servants when John and Fanny Dashwood arrive at Norland Park to take residence, and flank a seated Mrs. Ferrars when she banishes Edward and Lucy Steele from her sight. A footmen, as mentioned by Jane Austen, conveyed Marianne’s first letter to Willoughby when she arrives in London.
In Emma 1997, the viewer is treated to the ridiculous sight of footmen moving kneeling cushions among the rows of strawberries as Mr. Knightley’s guests pick the fruit in his garden. By and large, footmen represented a status symbol. Chosen for their looks and height, they wore livery of a style that was popular a century earlier, with “knee breeches and braided coats with shoulder knots. At Clandon Park in Surrey in 1876, Lord Onslow provided his footmen with silk stockings, gloves and pumps, and one guinea per annum to pay for powder to dress their hair for state occasions.” (Household Management, p 18.*)
According to Daniel Pool, footmen knew their status, and were generally known for their self-importance and lack of humor. The popular saying went that “calves came before character.” Taller footmen were paid higher wages, but the best status symbol of conspicuous wealth was a pair of footmen who were matched in height and looks.
Although footmen were assigned duties both inside and outside the house, such as polishing the silver, or riding on the back of coaches, they spent an inordinate amount of time conspicuously waiting, either in an entrance hall, dining room, or wherever their services might be required at a moment’s notice. “Daily comfort is provided by servants who are almost always invisible in Austen’s novels. They are there to provide leisure and services for their superiors and to disappear—like Thomas, the footman in Sense and Sensibility: ‘Thomas and the tablecloth, now alike needless, were soon afterwards dismissed'”**
“Has no letter been left here for me since we went out?” said [Marianne] to the footman who then entered with the parcels. She was answered in the negative. “Are you quite sure of it?” she replied. “Are you certain that no servant, no porter has left any letter or note?” – Jane Austen, Sense & Sensibility, Chapter 26
When the man replied, “none,” Marianne turned her back to him dismissively and moved to the window.
Servants were regarded by the gentry much as a backdrop, like wallpaper or furniture. Such indifference did not go unnoticed. Eric Horne, author of What the Butler Winked At (1923) observed: “Do they ever ask themselves this question, ‘Where did I come from? And Why? Where am I going to, and when?'” (Below Stairs, p. 95.***) In most cases, apparently not.
Read more on the topic in these resources and links:
- *Household Management, Margaret Willes, The National Trust, London, 1996.
- **Moral Neutrality in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Diane Capitani, Persuasions On-Line, Winter, 2002.
- ***Below Stairs: 400 Years of Servants’ Portraits, Giles Waterfield, Anne French, With Matthew Craske, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2003.
- Footmen: Male Servants in the Regency Era
- 19th Century Household Staff, Brad de Long
- What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist–The Facts of Daily Life in 19t-Century England, Daniel Pool, Touchstone, New York, 1993