Sunday, 3 March 2019

Universal Aunts (Trail, Call of Cthulhu, Night's Black Agents)

This post is inspired by Lucy Lethbridge's book Servants, which I'm reading for research purposes. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting period information on the Victorian era, the 1920s and 30s.

Lady-help is a catchall term for an unmarried woman without financial resources, who works as a kind of servant but isn't really from the same social class as a servant. Consequently they balance precariously between the group they feel they belong to, the middle classes, while at the same time not having the same claim to membership of that group as the people they work for. Lethbridge describes this as 'living on a social mezzanine floor, between one world and another.'

Often they do not, or cannot, perform the same tasks as a servant, having not been taught the necessary skills. Nor did they want to be taught. That's the whole point of being a lady; you don't have to do manual or domestic labor. So in practice the lady-help is a paid companion or quasi-governess, someone who can be set administrative tasks, like managing a diary or arranging train tickets and hotel stays, but who has no practical function, like laundry or cooking. Agatha Christie often makes use of the lady-help. Hildegarde Schmidt and Mary Debenham, who appear in her novel Murder on the Orient Express, are examples of the type.

In the Victorian and early Edwardian period, the lady-help's a bit vulnerable, particularly since they lack the money and the opportunity to save that guarantees a modest comfort in retirement. Again, going back to Agatha Christie, this is why legacies gifted in the master or mistress' will are so important. However for those not lucky enough to get a legacy, the best they can hope for is to live on charity - or, more likely, slowly starve on charity.

Things change in the 1920s. There are fewer men, thus fewer opportunities for marriage. Moreover the declining economy means families need cash, however they can get it. Unmarried daughters must work. At the same time, there's an innate horror in letting social standards slip. The middle class must remain the middle class; there can be no question of blurring the line between servant and master. Then there is the war, which among other things taught a whole generation of middle class women new skills, and confidence.

Enter new temporary employment agencies, like Universal Aunts.

'Britain's first personal service bureau' opened in 1921, on Sloane Street. Its founder, Gertie Maclean, wanted to create a venture "which will, I hope, fulfil my search for an opportunity to use my time and intelligence. I would hope too, that other like-minded ladies can become involved." They did, and soon Universal Aunts had a full catalogue of women capable of performing any task. Women with Zoological Society certificates, expert researchers fluent in many languages, women who knew about physics, spiritualism and foreign missions, who were qualified car and boat mechanics, and pilots.

Women who would make excellent investigators in any period horror game, especially Trail and Call of Cthulhu.

These kinds of agencies turn up in fiction now and again. Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey owned and operated an agency like this, with Joan Murchison, former secretary with a background in stock broking, as its founder member. However it wasn't until Servants that I realized this was an actual, historical event, not some backstory invented by a mystery writer. It opens up a range of options for the Keeper, or even the Night's Black Agents director. Consider:

  • The agency can be a source of information. You can justify any skill set you care to name - Archaeology, Accounting, History, Library Use, Bureaucracy, High Society, Surveillance - and the agency can meet that need. So if the investigators pick up an interesting doodad, and don't know what it is or what it does, ask Universal Aunts to look into the problem. Or need someone followed, or something looked into.
  • The agency can be an employer or patron, for female investigators. That former Dilettante who lost all her family money in the great Crash can find a new sense of purpose, and employment, with Universal Aunts. It might work even better with a group of all female investigators.
  • It can be a clue dispenser. Are the investigators getting bogged down in minutiae, or lost in the weeds? Universal Aunts might point them in the right direction, albeit indirectly. Say the investigators are having trouble tracking down Stanley Fentiman, or they want to know why he was kicked out of his old College, or what he's been up to recently. Universal Aunts may know, because one of its members knows Fentiman, or used to work with him, or has connections with the College that chucked him out. Or Universal Aunts may come to the investigators and ask their help with Fentiman, thus giving the investigators a clue as to his whereabouts or plans. 
  • It can be a training facility. If the investigator needs to brush up on her Latin, History, Vampirology, or whatever it may be, there's bound to be an Aunt who knows all about it, and can help.
  • It can be an occult investigative agency. This is similar to the employer or patron option, above, except that it exists to combat occult threats. It hides this mission under some discreet front, but imagine a Universal Aunts founded, not by Gertie Maclean, but by Wilhemina Murray. Or Dion Fortune, or anyone with occult interests. Universal Aunts wouldn't be up there with Delta Green, sending out hit squads to eliminate threats, but there's all kinds of trouble it could get up to. That mysterious Count, for example, with his business interests in Whitby - no doubt the Aunts have crossed swords with him before. 
The best thing about Universal Aunts, of course, is that it still exists. Anything For Anyone At Any Time is one heck of a motto to live up to for over a hundred years, but Universal Aunts has managed it. 'Universal Aunts still endeavors to rise to any challenge.' I bet it does! This means it can be a resource in Call, Trail, and Night's Black Agents; plausible in any era. 

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

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