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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Listening ears

For the past week or so, my Google alert has been crowded with versions of the same story: William and Kate—that’s the Prince and Princess of Wales to us commoners—apparently don’t always get along perfectly! Sometimes they fight! They even throw things! From time to time, “he’ll call her ‘darling’ with ‘signs of annoyance’ ”!


Ordinarily, I wouldn’t care much about the shocking news that a fortyish couple with high-profile jobs and three children under the age of ten sometimes blow off steam by yelling at each other. I might not even consider it my business.


But Tom Quinn, the author of Gilded Youth: An Intimate History of Growing Up in the Royal Family, has been promoting his newly-published-in-the-UK book by name-checking Our Jane, and that makes it very much my business.


“The big stress for William and Kate is that they’re constantly surrounded by [palace aides],” Quinn has reportedly said. “It’s like a Jane Austen novel."


Which begs the question: What is he talking about? Because the presence of “palace aides” is clearly not a big issue in any of Jane Austen’s novels, seeing as her characters don’t live in palaces or have aides.


Perhaps Quinn is merely suggesting that William and Kate’s privacy is constrained by the fact that, like characters in an Austen novel, they have a lot of domestic help on hand to overhear blazing rows, duck flying projectiles, and note the tone of voice in which he calls her “darling.”


No doubt this is true of William and Kate, but is it equally true of Austen’s characters?


The people Austen writes about do keep servants, of course. And it’s not just the richest among them who have butlers, housekeepers, ladies’ maids, footmen, coachmen, and cooks: Even the impoverished Bates women in Emma have a woman named Patty helping out in the kitchen. In Austen’s day, labor was cheaper and daily tasks more onerous than they are today.


But offhand, I can think of only two instances in which the indiscretion of the help plays even a minor role in the plot of an Austen novel: Elizabeth Bennet’s worry that the servants have been spreading gossip about Lydia’s elopement, and the Bertram family’s fear that Maria’s adultery will be exposed by her mother-in-law’s maid.


Except in the case of extreme family scandal, Austen’s servants mostly stay quietly in the wings, while their employers—and most of Austen’s readers—barely notice them at all. I’m not defending this obliviousness; it’s an aspect of Austen’s class assumptions, and our own, that contemporary critics have rightfully begun to discuss. But it’s notable that this not-in-front-of-the-servants problem is clearly not “the big stress” for Austen’s characters that it allegedly is for William and Kate.


Why might that be? I think the answer is obvious. In Austen’s day, although the servants might gossip, they were probably unlikely to give juicy interviews to authors of tell-all books supposedly based on conversations with “royal insiders and palace staff.”

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