The character trope of the "personal assistant" -- the person in a subordinate position whose job consists of providing support and devalued labor for a character with more pubic agency -- is tricky to portray. Particularly in an intensely class-stratified culture when that role is not typically freely chosen from among other options. Given her family's background and her work history, Roz sees the position of lady's maid as a desirable goal, but that isn't meant to erase the ways in which being a household servant are exploitative, exhausting, and often degrading.
And yet...in fiction, there's an undeniable appeal to the special bond and experience that comes when your job is to go all out to make someone else's life easy and beautiful and enjoyable, to be the invisible hands that turn out someone else's life as a work of art. There have been occasions in my life when--on a temporary and limited basis--I had roles like that, whether in supporting a manager on a project, or within historic re-enactment events play-acting the role of servant in a context where I was also providing real, logistical support to my fictive employer. I've felt that appeal--with the knowledge that it was within a limited scope and the person I was "doing for" had no power over my life as a whole.
Further, one can be in a subordinate, supportive role and have the agency to perform that role as a piece of artistry, or begrudgingly as a chore to be endured.
Roz is torn between aspiring to perfect the skills of a real lady's maid--to become an artist with her maisetra's life as the medium of her art--and the more concrete and enduring art of the dressmaker. Neither of them is a certain path. Both are skill sets she has yet to master in full. But in this scene I've tried to show some of the appeal of the former.
* * *
Tiporsel House was still all upside down when Maisetra Iulien’s father arrived. I’d almost forgotten about that. Futures seemed so far away. I know it doesn’t belong to me to say so, but he was a sour-looking man, all puffed up with his own importance. I didn’t like the way he talked to the maisetra, like she was a child. I could tell Maisetra Iulien loved him the same as I loved my father, but I could tell why she might have wanted a look at the wider world, without him standing over her.
Dressing became a chore every morning and evening. It wasn’t that Maisetra Iulien had so many gowns to choose from, but she’d try them all on and toss them on the bed and try again until I was ready to send her down to breakfast in her chemise.
“This one makes me look too young! He’ll think I’m a child who shouldn’t be allowed out of the house. That one makes me look too sophisticated. Look at the décolletage. It’s not my fault my bosom has grown this year.”
“Then wear it with your fichu,” I suggested. “And you should put the ear-bobs away until evening. I know girls wear them for everyday in the city, but Mefro Dominique says it isn’t done in the country, and that’s what your father will expect.”
I’d been asking Mefro Dominique a lot of questions about what was and wasn’t done since Maistir Fulpi had come. I could have asked Maitelen, but she was so worn down from looking after the baroness. Maisetra Iulien was in such a dither, I needed somebody’s word that weighed more than mine to keep her from wearing anything foolish.
Maisetra Iulien looked up and said, “What would I do without you, Roz?”
“I’m sure you’d do well enough,” I replied as I put the earrings back in her jewelry box. “Now let me do up your hair. You’ll feel better once this business is settled.”
I’d learned more hairdressing and was proud of how I turned her out, but it was a very long week.