Discovering My Inner Victorian

Power exchange is the most important aspect of kink for me. I’ve known this from the start. But trying to work out what type of power exchange I was looking for had me fairly baffled.

Then I read Paradigms of Power, which is a collection of essays about various styles of power exchange edited by Raven Kaldera.

In the book there are several mentions of power exchanges based on English-style hierarchy, be it Victorian, Edwardian, early 20th century, or as far back as the Renaissance.

In retrospect, what I wanted was blazingly obvious.

It turns out I’ve been a Victorian all this time. If you knew me, this wouldn’t be a surprise.

I like my antique furniture and chamber music, my Pre-Raphaelites and Dickens, Collins and Conan Doyle novels.

(Don’t get me wrong, I also like indoor plumbing, vaccines and civil rights. I don’t romanticize the period. Corsets are for fun—not permanent organ damage.)

Prior to the obvious hitting me in the face, I knew I wanted to be a sort of personal assistant to my D-type. Someone who took care of her clothing and dressed her and did secretarial things and ran errands, got drinks and was a general companion, who was valued and reflected well on her, etc. I had a list that was sort of specific but didn’t describe a contemporary job.

I knew what a lady’s maid was, of course, but being oblivious was very time-consuming and I hadn’t taken the time to sit down and work it out for myself.

Behold, the character I was most jealous of in this film (not Professor McGonagall--the other one). (source)

Behold, the character I was most jealous of in this film (not Professor McGonagall–the other one). (source)

The tone in the relationship I was looking for was warm or affectionate, though it wouldn’t necessarily have to be romantic in nature. It could be, but that wasn’t a necessity.

As I was reading Paradigms of Power, there were various essays (and portions of essays) about the dynamic I was looking for.

In an essay entitled ‘The Victorian M/s Household’ by Sir Stephen (of the Household of Sir Stephen), he talks about the sort of visual media useful for learning about good service.

He includes Upstairs Downstairs and Jeeves and Wooster, and has this to say about the latter:

Although there are wonderful moments of service woven into the comedy, it is a little bit dangerous for slaves to be allowed to view this, as it encourages subtle forms of smart-assery.

Remains of the Day is also recommended, as is Gosford Park. Where we’re meant to look out for this line:

“What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation And I’m a good servant. I’m better than good, I’m the best; I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired, and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.”

There’s another line Helen Mirren (Mrs Wilson in the film) says that I remember clearly, which was, ‘I’m the perfect servant—I have no life.’ because when I saw this in the cinema I leaned over to the person sitting next to me and whispered, ‘What do you know, I’m the perfect servant.’

As I was looking through the Gosford Park quotes on IMDb, I came across this one:

Robert Parks: Here we go again.
Mary Maceachran: That’s just it. I’ve never done a real house party before. Not properly anyway.
Elsie (Head Housemaid): How come you got taken on as a countess lady’s maid if you’ve got no experience?
Mary Maceachran: She wants to train me. She said she didn’t care about experience.

Training, you say? Tell me more about that.

For those of you playing along at home: I’ve seen all of Jeeves and Wooster (love them!) and owned Remains of the Day on VHS and have Gosford Park on DVD.

Denser than a dying sun, me.

The second essay in the Victorians section is ‘The Naughty Victorians’ by Sir John of Cawdor and slave girl yoni

He says this:

Lace and the necklaces and earrings of that era replace leather boots and clothing; Victorian deportment replaces leather protocols.

Posture and carriage were important to Victorian ladies, and they were trained to carry themselves well, to have poise, and to gesture gently and elegantly. My slave-girls know to carry themselves with pride and to keep their heads up—never to look down at the ground.

However, her dress must always be carefully thought out; even when it is deliberately provocative, it must be in a mode which I call “elegantly slutty”.

Our cultural dynamic draws its elegance from another era, but we do live in this one, and we modify it to “pass” easily. We are not trying for flashiness and “look at us”; only those who are in the know can discern who and what we are. We wish to blend in in all contexts. We hide in plain sight.

I’d written a piece of erotica/description of a dream I’d had to a friend on Fet and she said she liked how ‘demanding but respectful’ the women was towards me. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but all of my fantasies have that tone. And that’s the sort of power exchange I would flourish in. It’s also the way Ladies would treat their maids. They’d expect proper service and respect in return for their own respect.

In a later section of the book, which focused on power exchanges that consisted of a mix of styles, both essays included English-style PE.

In ‘Building a Household Style’ by Master James, the household in question employs Edwardian manners.

I was uncomfortable, early on, with the idea of snapping orders at a “slave”. Growing up in the 1970s, I’d watched Upstairs Downstairs, and The Duchess of Duke Street, both of which shaped my idea on how people of quality speak to people serving them. I also had a distinct opinion that people who were rude or impolite to service people—including their own—were uncouth.

Indeed! And that adds The Duchess of Duke Street to my list of media, which I haven’t watched. I’ve started a page of Victorian resources. It’s rather scant, at the moment, but suggestions are welcome and I’m sure it will grow with time.

Another quote from that essay:

Over time, however, through events, cultural reference, and my influence, an Edwardian manner has become a part of our household ethic. Orders and demurrals should be polite, allowing for an interchange and correction or new information, so that the process of orders is never a source of embarrassment on either end.

The concept of barking orders, in addition to being bad manners, always seemed comical to me, reminding me of Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments intoning gravely “So it shall be written. So it shall be done!” To me, “I’ll endeavor to do my best, Sir,” “Was that a priority, Sir?” and “I’m afraid that may be impossible with the resources at hand, Sir,” were all perfectly reasonable responses.

I do like ‘Was that a priority?’

Then I'm like: Here I am, just being ready to help. (source)

No worries, I’ll wait until you’ve decided if it is. (source)

The final essay—for my purposes and in the book—was ‘Our Archetypal Array’ by Raven Kaldera, Joshua Tenpenny and Brandon Hardy.

One of their archetypes is Renaissance Manservant, which Raven describes thusly:

Actually, this archetype extends itself well into the eighteenth century, although it had changed a great deal by Victorian times. Wealthy medieval households had many servants of varying ranks, but personal attendants really came into their own during the Renaissance, with the rise of a middle class that couldn’t afford a whole household, but could pay one well-trained servant to cover all but the menial tasks. By Renaissance England, the personal attendant was sometimes referred to as a valet (the word is first found in writing in 1567), sometimes as a “serving-gentleman” or “waiting-gentleman”, and sometimes just “my man” (e.g. Shakespeare’s line “Romeo came not home last night; I spoke with his man…”). The female equivalent was the “serving-gentlewoman”, “waiting-gentlewoman”, or “maid”, not to be confused with the later position of housemaid. Their jobs did include dressing their superior and looking after clothing, but they also encompassed being a traveling companion, carrying bags, taking messages, digging up dirt, making sure that their superior got fed, and many other tasks. Most importantly, their biggest job was to be “in waiting”—waiting for the next order, whatever that might be. They were a plucky, resourceful, respectful, and entertaining (if desired) sidekick who stuck to the side of their master or mistress, no matter where that road led.

Of course, to my mind, desired ‘entertainment’ could be some sort of nefarious kinkiness, if that’s how the power exchange had been designed.

Raven goes on to say:

Long ago, while browsing Life In Elizabethan England: A Compendium of Common Knowledge, written as a handbook for reenactors by Maggie Pierce Secara, I ran across her advice for those playing this specific kind of servant. She wrote: “A servant and master strive to do each other credit. As a lady of quality, it is unbecoming to your dignity to carry your own shopping basket. As that lady’s servant, it is unbecoming to your dignity to let her.” She then went on to write: “The good servant, like a good waiter, is attentive. The best servant is a little bit psychic. He is there when you need him but never hovers. He finds some virtuous occupation when you disappear. He is neither lewd nor vain, but maintains a respectable countenance, to the credit of his master. He is modest but never craven, humble but never base, candid but not insolent.”

I like the ‘doing one another credit’ bit. Both people strive to be worthy of the other just like a good power exchange. Of course, the ‘little bit psychic’ part goes perfectly with the Gosford Park quote (much) earlier in this piece. I’ve always wanted to be one of those secretaries who had a report ready before my boss asked for it and, Bugs Bunny-like, produced the file out of nowhere. Or: ‘It’s on your desk, ma’am.’

Also, the phrase ‘virtuous occupation’ appeals to me greatly, though it makes me think of someone darning socks in a corner. (I’ve tried to learn to darn socks. You know what? We’re buying new socks.)

Back to the essay. Raven goes into what is required of him in order to live up to his side of the equation:

I also absorbed her words about my side of the dynamic as well: “The good master is proud but never despotic. He is patient, governing his household with fatherly care. He does not twist your sincere desire to serve into a sincere desire to punch him out. He lets you do your job. He maintains his superior station, as God has given it him, by honourable behavior, not by argument.”

In practice, this means that my boys are expected to be able to manage the “charming companion” job on top of the “resourceful servant” job. Our public protocol is less formal but more subtle—less about being a silent servant and more about being exactly the companion I want, in exactly the specific ways I want it.

And finally:

Which brings us to my end of the deal. Noblesse oblige literally means “the obligations of the nobility”, and as I understand it, this is honorable behavior. If one believes one’s self to be superior, one should evince public behavior that is better than those one feels superior to. All the time. No exceptions. And, by the way, “public” means “where any other human being can see you, or will find out about it”. The peasants get to be jerks to each other. I don’t. I sometimes fail, but it is never acceptable, and I am always striving to hold to that goal. That’s part of how I earn that special regard. It’s also important to my servants that I show consistently better judgment in important matters than they do, so I’d better stay on my game and make sure I’m thinking deeply enough on each issue to make that happen.

This is the sort of person I want to serve. If I’m being held to a high standard, then there’d better be a good reason and you’d better be spectacular. I see it as a cycle where we feed into one another. I get something out of serving someone outstanding (and being allowed to serve and meeting goals and growing), but that person has to be someone worth serving. The more admirable of a person you are, the better of a servant I’ll want to be. If you’re not living up to your potential as a D-type, I’m not going to get anything out of serving you.


  • Just to add to your viewing pleasure: Downtown Abbey? There are 6 seasons I think and it’s very similar to upstairs downstairs. Plus it’s fabulously funny and a wonderful costume drama!

    • thepageist says:

      Huh. I thought I’d added that one already, as it’s certainly been mentioned various places. Thank you for the reminder!

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