I grew up without servants. This is hardly surprising: in the first place, we were a small, lower-middle-class family who lived in small, lower-middle-class housing. Before the war, such families could typically afford a maid and perhaps a cook as well. The real middle class, of course, did much better: upstairs and downstairs staff were well within the reach of a professional man and his family. But by the 1950s taxation and higher wages had put domestic employees beyond the reach of all but the best-heeled. The most that my parents could aspire to was a day nanny for me—when I was young and my mother worked—followed by a series of au pair girls in the more prosperous later years. Beyond that there was the occasional cleaning lady; nothing more.
I was thus utterly unprepared for Cambridge. In keeping with long tradition, both Oxford and Cambridge universities employed staff whose job was exclusively to look after the young men. In Oxford, such persons were known as “scouts”; in Cambridge, they were “bedders.” The distinction was a matter of convention—although the words suggest an interesting nuance in the form of oversight they were required to exercise—but the function was identical. Bedders, like scouts, were expected to prepare a fire (in the days of open-hearth heating), clean the young gentlemen’s rooms, make their beds and change their linen, undertake minor shopping expeditions on their behalf, and generally provide them with the services to which they had presumably become accustomed in the course of their upbringing.
To be sure, there were other assumptions implicit in the job description. Oxbridge students, so it was held, were incapable of handling such subaltern tasks: because they had never undertaken them, but also because their aspirations and interests elevated them beyond such concerns. Moreover, and perhaps above all, the bedder was responsible for keeping an eye on the moral condition of her charge (scouts in Oxford were occasionally male, though less so by the 1960s, but bedders in my experience were always women).
I arrived in Cambridge in 1966, by which time the institution of the bedder and the responsibilities placed upon her, though not yet anachronistic, sat in some tension with rapidly shifting cultural mores. In King’s, at least, a growing number of students lacked any firsthand acquaintance with domestic servants; we were more than a little confused by the first encounter with a woman who was, at least formally, at our “disposal.”
Most bedders were ladies of a certain age, usually from local families who had been in college or university employ for as long as anyone could recall. They were thus intimately familiar with the culture of “service” and the subtle interplay of authority and humility entailed in master–servant relations. In the mid-1960s, there were bedders still on the college rolls who had been there since the armistice of 1918. They knew what to expect of teenage boys: being considerably older than our mothers, they had no trouble extracting the appropriate mix of respect and affection.
But there were also newer, younger bedders. Drawn from the same social class as their older colleagues and likewise rooted in the East Anglian rural community, they doubtless looked upon us as the feckless and privileged outsiders that we were. From our perspective, however, they were decidedly exotic: a girl, often only a few years older than us, who arrived early in the morning and made herself useful in our bedroom. “Useful” in this sense of course was restricted to cleaning up after our mess: while Mrs. (or, as it might be, Miss) Mop fussed benignly around our feet, her plump contours within reach of our adolescent imaginings but otherwise untouchable, we did our best to mimic gentlemen of leisure, slumped carelessly in our armchairs over coffee and newspaper.
The bedder was not fooled of course, nor were we—though both parties had an interest in pretending otherwise. The class inhibition (not to mention the risk of unemployment) would have sufficed to constrain the woman. As for the undergraduate, even if he had no firsthand experience of this sort of relationship, the sociocultural learning curve was remarkably steep. By the end of our first semester, we treated our assigned bedder as though to the manor born.
If the issue of sex arose, it pertained rather to the bedder’s implicit duty to enforce (by reporting infractions) the moral rules and codes of the institution. In most Oxbridge colleges at that time, girls were rigorously forbidden to spend the night in a boy’s room and had to be out of the college or hostel by 11 PM or sooner: the authorities took their in loco parentis responsibilities quite literally. In this as in most other respects, King’s was a little different—not in its formal regulations so much as in the extent to which they could be breached with impunity.
Thus most of us at one time or another had a girl in de facto residence (occasionally serial girls, though not everyone was so blessed): sometimes a fellow student from one of the three women’s colleges, sometimes a trainee teacher or nurse from the city, not infrequently an import from our hometown. The college deans and tutors turned a blind eye: middle-class bohemians themselves, in outlook if not lifestyle, they smiled benignly upon breaches of the rules they were expected to enforce—conscious of the college’s carefully cultivated self-image of radical dissent and its long-standing tradition of transgressive sexuality (albeit hitherto of the homoerotic variety).
Bedders, of course, saw things differently. Like the college porters and administrative staff, they had often been in their post longer than their employers. Coming from farming or working-class stock, they were also far more morally conservative than the intellectual and professional middle class over whom they exercised informal guardianship and to whom they reported. Caught between naughty young men and their lenient superiors, the bedders of previous decades could fall back on moral convention and public opinion.
But in the Sixties the old rules did not apply—or at least were becoming unenforceable. And so a new set of unstated accords began to emerge, rather like the informal terms on which late-era Communist states were constrained to survive: we pretend to conform and you pretend to believe us. I don’t suppose that there were many of us, even by 1968, who would have had the effrontery to present our bedder with not just the evidence of a young lady’s presence but the young lady herself. On the other hand, we no longer felt it necessary to strive officiously to cover up our tracks: the occasional item of female attire, or other evidence of overnight companionship, carried scant risk of official censure. We acted as though the bedder supposed us to be living monkishly contemplative lives, and the bedder—complicit and mildly amused—did nothing to disabuse us.
Indeed, the only time I caused my bedder any trouble was the night when I—uncharacteristically and for reasons I no longer recall—returned to my room blind drunk, collapsed onto my bed…and woke up in a pool of vomit. Next morning, my bedder, an elderly veteran named Rose, took in the situation with a wordless glance and went to work. Within two hours, I was clean, dressed, and in my armchair, coffee to hand and sputtering with embarrassment. Rose, in cool command, returned my bed and its surroundings to their usual pristine condition while chatting nonchalantly away about her daughter-in-law’s travails at the supermarket. She never spoke of the incident to me, nor I to her, and our relationship suffered no detriment.
I think I gave Rose an unusually large box of chocolates that Christmas. I would certainly not have known what else to do: she was poor and might have appreciated hard cash, but the college frowned upon money tips and in any case I was no better off than she was. The difference between us, elective cultural affinities aside, lay in our future prospects, not our contemporary condition. We both understood this, though she doubtless better than I.
A decade later, I was now in authority: Rose’s employer, so to speak. A fellow of King’s and, briefly, associate dean, it was my job on occasion to reprimand undergraduates for excessively inappropriate behavior. In this capacity I once mediated between a bunch of late-Seventies students (boys and girls alike, King’s having gone “mixed” in 1972) who had been seen cavorting naked on the college lawns early one morning and a bedder who had taken umbrage at their immodesty. The students were utterly mystified: in those post-authoritarian times it was incomprehensible to them that anyone would find such behavior untoward, much less “inappropriate.” It was not, as one of them pointed out to me, as though they had been “doing it in the road”—a Paul McCartney reference that they could reasonably expect a Sixties-era Fellow to recognize.
The bedder, however, was inconsolable. Nudity was not unfamiliar to her. She had witnessed generations of young rugby players, cavorting drunkenly in their underpants before collapsing into an alcoholic stupor. But this was different. For a start there were girls involved and this upset her. In the second place, no one had made any effort to pretend or dissimulate or cover up. And thirdly, they had laughed at her discomfort. In short, they had broken the rules of engagement and she felt humiliated.
The undergraduates in question, as it turned out, were mostly from state schools: upwardly mobile, first- generation students of modest background. This, too, upset the bedder. It was one thing to be patronized by young gentlemen of the old sort—who would characteristically have apologized the following morning and expressed their regret in the form of a gift or even an affectionate, remorseful embrace. But the newer sort of student treated her as an equal—and it was this as much as anything else which hurt her feelings. The bedder was not the undergraduates’ equal; never would be. But at least she had a traditional claim, even if only during their student years, upon their forbearance and respect. What was the point of being an underpaid servant if this was no longer forthcoming? At that point the relationship was reduced to one of mere employment, in which case she would be better off at the local canning factory.
The nuances of this encounter would have escaped me altogether had I not myself been educated into this late-era application of noblesse oblige. I tried to explain to the students—just ten years my junior—exactly why this middle-aged lady was so offended and upset. But all they could hear was a justification for indentured servitude in an age of rhetorical egalitarianism. They were certainly not against the institution of bedders, of which they were the beneficiaries. They simply thought that the women should be better paid: as though this would inure them to the injuries of class and the wounded vanity of status loss—absolving the boys and girls whose beds they made from the patronizing obligations of politeness and consideration.
The students faithfully reflected contemporary dispositions. Like the economists of our day—and notwithstanding their own fondly asserted radical predilections—they were of the view that all human relations are best reduced to rational calculations of self-interest. Surely the bedder would rather earn twice as much and agree to turn a blind eye to behavior that she found offensive?
But, as I think back, it was the bedder who showed a more subtle grasp of the core truths of human exchange. The students, unbeknownst to themselves, were parroting a reduced and impoverished capitalist vision: the ideal of monadic productive units maximizing private advantage and indifferent to community or convention. Their bedder knew otherwise. Semiliterate and poorly educated she might have been, but her instincts brought her unerringly to an understanding of social intercourse, the unwritten rules that sustain it, and the a priori interpersonal ethics on which it rests. She had certainly never heard of Adam Smith, but the author of A Theory of Moral Sentiments would surely have applauded.
—This piece is part of a continuing series of memoirs by Tony Judt.
February 11, 2010