The Tardis in the library, part three: Living the life of leisure

I have time machines in my library. They work like magical one-way windows for when I gaze into them I can see and listen to people from times past yet they cannot see or hear me. Some, I think, suspect that people from the future might occasionally look in on them and so they are on what they feel to be their \”best\” behaviour. It is interesting and informative to see what they consider \”best\” behaviour.\” Other people from the past seem either to be totally unaware or totally unconcerned that people from the future might pass through every once and a while.

Remember the great reveal in Harry Potter when the audience/readers find out that much of the workaday practical magic of Hogwarts was performed by house elfs? That it was they who made the beds and cooked the meals and cleared the tables.

One finds, while reading books written a century ago, that a similar magic was a routine part of the lives of many of the characters. For example, consider the story The Gardener written by E. F. Benson and first published in 1923. As the story opens the unnamed narrator has gone to the country to visit friends for a fortnight in the country.

I arrived there while yet the daylight lingered, and as my hosts were out, I took a ramble around the place. [1] (264)

In the world of Benson\’s narrators (and the people and places they visit) there are always servants around to greet arriving visitors, to carry their luggage to their rooms and to unpack for them.

after ordering tea to be sent up to my gorgeous apartment, No. 23, on the first floor, I went straight up there. . . . The unpacking had been finished, and everything was neat, orderly, and comfortable. . . . There were, as I have said, two beds in it, on one of which were already laid out my dress-clothes, while night-things were disposed on the other. (The Other Bed, 146)

These \”gentle\” men and women don\’t cook, they don\’t clean and they don\’t set the table. They write letters, they visit with friends, they play sports, they go for walks and drives and then they \”dress\’ for dinner. Having changed from their daytime clothes they come down to a table already prepared for them and when finished their meals they go to the drawing room or (if male) drink port and smoke and then go to the drawing room. When they amble upstairs at the end of the evening the daytime clothes they previously shed will have been picked up and their night clothes laid out for them.

They need not even worry whether they might accidentally lock themselves out of their homes for there was always a servant to greet them:

He had forgotten his latch-key, but his housekeeper. . . . must have heard his step, for before he rang the bell she had opened the door, and stood with his forgotten latch-key in her hand. (\”And The Dead Spake–\”, 177)

One might argue that the real fantasy of Harry Potter is that one could receive the type of service that ordinary \”gentle\” men and women once did without feeling uncomfortable that people might be tending to our needs, not due to devoted service but simply for the wages earned–as the ghost of Mr. Tilly learns to his discomfort as he listens in on his servants who have just learned of his death:

\”Poor little gentleman,\” said his cook. \”It seems a shame it does. He never hurt a fly. . .\” The great strapping parlour-maid tossed her head. \”Well I\’m not sure it doesn\’t serve him right,\” she observed. \”Always messing about with spirits. . .But I\’m sorry all the same. A less troublesome little gentleman never stepped. Always pleasant, too, and wages paid to the day.\”

These regretful comments and encomiums were something of a shock to Mr. Tilly. He had imagined that his excellent servants regarded him with respectful affection, as befitted some sort of demigod, and the rôle of the poor little gentleman was not at all to his mind. (Mr. Tilly\’s Séance 278, 279)

Perhaps some of the popularity of Harry Potter and like stories of fantasy and magic is an attempt to recapture all the joys and comforts of times past without all of the baggage of class essentialism and economic inequities those comforts entailed.


[1] All quotations are from stories in: Benson, E. The Collected ghost stories of E.F. Benson. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992. &#8617

3 thoughts on “The Tardis in the library, part three: Living the life of leisure

  1. Except that the house-elves aren't even paid, because they've been bred to be willing slaves. And it doesn't count because they're not human. Or something. I thought this wasn't meant to be a horror setting…

  2. If Rowling was attempting to recapture the joys of times past without stirring up feelings of guilt she did an ingenious job, portraying the house elfs as feeling intensely miserable when confronted with freedom.Some of the passages are painful to read, though, when one considers how some plantation owners in the South viewed the African-Americans under their control as child-like. Did those slave-owners rationalize what they were doing by convincing themselves that their slaves would also be terrified by freedom?Closer to Benson's time, I am also reminded of the British dystopia The Time Machine by H.G.Wells (1895) in which the Eloi (the leisure class) have all their comforts invisibly supplied by the Morlocks toiling deep underground.The Time Traveller theorizes that the Eloi evolved from the ruling class and the Morlocks evolved from the working class. One crucial difference is that the Eloi pay a high price for their life of contentment.The Kidd

  3. \”Except that the house-elves aren't even paid, because they've been bred to be willing slaves. And it doesn't count because they're not human. Or something. I thought this wasn't meant to be a horror setting…\”They're not 'bred'. They're brownies. It's an old myth, applied without an incredible deal of thought.– Anonymous

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