On 4 August 1789, five years after the premiere of La folle journée and three years after that of Le nozze di Figaro, the ancient custom of droit de seigneur was abolished by decree of the National Assembly of France, along with exclusive rights to maintain pigeon houses and dovecotes. Also known as droit de cuissage and droit de jambage, the feudal perk by which an aristocrat could deflower any woman in his estate had seldom been formally invoked within living memory. There was no need.

Transgressive yet domestic, requiring little effort or expenditure, the sexual harrassment of servants had long been commonplace and would long remain so. Nor was such a practice confined to France or Spain, a setting which scarcely impacts on a drama that was played out wherever inequality prevailed. To the French-born playwright Beaumarchais, the Austrian composer Mozart, his Italian librettist Da Ponte and their first Susanna, the London-born soprano Nancy Storace, Le nozze di Figaro was credible to the core.

Eighteenth-century England saw a great wave of publications about, for and by the servant. There were novels (Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Henry Fielding’s parodies Shamela and Joseph Andrews) and memoirs (the anonymous Adventures of a Valet and John MacDonald’s Travels in Various Parts of Europe, Asia and Africa). There was poetry by the footman Robert Dodsley and the washerwoman Mary Collier, and advice literature both practical (Eliza Haywood’s waspish A Present for a Servant-Maid) and spiritual (Thomas Broughton’s Serious Advice and Warning to Servants and Jonas Hanway’s Virtue in Humble Life). The Quaker philanthropist Priscilla Wakefield argued for the education of female servants in Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex. In Servants: English Domestics in the Eighteenth Century, the late historian Bridget Hill recounts the story of the Reverend William Cole, who employed “a music master from Buckingham” to teach his man-servant Tom to play “the German flute”.

MacDonald, a valet who was educated by his first employers and highly prized for his hair-dressing skills, was considered a subversive upon the publication of his exotic amorous adventures. In Joseph Andrews, it is the seventeen year-old footman hero who is the object of Lady Booby’s attempted seductions. Yet in fiction and elsewhere the relationship between female servants, whether naïve or sophisticated, and their masters was the dominant theme. The fairy-tale ending of Pamela, in which a virtuous maid marries her libidinous master with her hymen intact, teaching him to be good by example, was regarded by many as absurd. That her master might find her attractive was not. In Female Tuition; or an Address to Mothers on the Education of Daughters (1786) John Moir grimly warned that “So profligate and abandoned is the world become, that you had better turn your daughter into the street at once than place her out to service. For ten to one her master shall seduce her.”

Dressed in their mistresses’ hand-me-downs and possessed of a ‘polite education’ that was often equal to that of their mistresses, including reading, writing and some musical skills, the eighteenth century ladies maid was seen as prey and predator. The wealthier the mistress, the more fashionable the maid. So outraged was one anonymous lady’s woman by the “false and absurd” accusations of female servants’ overfondness for calico and other luxuries in Daniel Defoe’s 1725 Every-body’s business is no-body’s business that she authored The Maid Servant’s Modest Defence in riposte. Her protests fell on deaf ears.

Twenty years later, Jonathan Swift took up the theme in his satirical Directions to Servants: “If you are in a great Family, and my Lady’s Woman, my Lord may probably like you, although you are not half so handsome as his own Lady. In this Case, take Care to get as much out of him as you can, and never allow him the smallest Liberty, not the squeezing of your Hand, unless he puts a Guinea into it; so, by degrees, make him pay accordingly for every new Attempt, doubling upon him in proportion to the Concessions you allow, and always struggling, and threatening to cry out or tell your Lady, although you receive his Money: Five Guineas for handling your Breast is a cheap Pennyworth, although you resist with all your Might; but never allow him the last Favour under a hundred Guineas, or a Settlement of twenty Pounds a Year for Life.”

To Count Almaviva, contemplating the cost of Susanna’s dowry, this might have sounded like a reasonable tariff. But although some women did end up with such settlements, while others were married off to man-servants of their master’s choosing, most did not. As Cissie Fairchilds noted in Domestic Enemies: Servants and their Masters in Old Regime France (1984), “the majority accepted their master’s advances because they had no choice.” Barbarina’s compliance is perhaps more typical than Susanna’s defiance.

Hill points out that “the very nature of servants’ quarters contributed to their vulnerability. Often they were mere spaces on landings or virtual cupboards without windows or, sometimes, even doors… When servants were given rooms they were usually small attics. But whatever their quarters were, something that was common to them all was that they could rarely be locked.” In the grounds cited in women’s petitions for separation in eighteenth century France, a husband’s affair with a maid came second only to physical abuse. Should these maids fall pregnant, they would be dismissed. In Nantes, between 1725 and 1788, eight thousand babies were born out of wedlock, some of them foundlings. An estimated forty percent of their mothers were in service, as was Bartolo’s ‘serva antica’, Marcellina, who is revealed as Figaro’s mother in Act III.

We recognise these characters as real. Their contemporaries would also have recognised their situation. Susanna, described by Beaumarchais as “shrewd, quick-witted”, is developed by Mozart and Da Ponte into a character of great warmth and resourcefulness and pride. Unlike Richardson’s light-headed heroine, she has scant recourse to the smelling salts on her own behalf. There is also a strong suggestion that she and Figaro already enjoy a deal of physical intimacy. In pre-revolutionary Paris she was so popular that a toque was named after her – no small achievement in a society where ladies maids were regarded as little more than whores.

As the historian Sarah C Maza observes in Servants and Masters in Eighteenth Century France (1983), “the repertoire of abuse against female servants, a series of variations on motifs of prostitution, pimping and pregnancy, was high in colour, if limited in thematic scope.” While literacy rates among male and female members of the labouring classes stood at 21% and 7% respectively, male and female domestic servants enjoyed literacy rates of 57% and 37%. Their marginal position made them vulnerable to “an intricate mixture of contempt and jealousy” that was expressed in “the coarsest of sexual slurs.” For those at the top of their profession, the potential fall from grace was vertiginous.

The Mozartian scholar Cliff Eisen writes that Le nozze di Figaro is “simple in outline, complicated in detail”. Told in one line, the opera is a story of two women of different classes who unite to thwart the seduction of one by the husband of the other. If Mozart’s score is what communicates the changing light of a single summer day and the unspoken thoughts behind the sung words, small details in Da Ponte’s libretto serve to highlight other nuances of status and circumstance. In the long list of material objects that are mentioned, some of them products of recent industrialisation, others handcrafted, there is a pungent sense of a period of great change.

In the first scene we have a measuring stick, a bed, a bonnet, a rare private space and a provocation from Susanna to Figaro – “Sei tu mio servo o no?” (Are you my servant or not?) – in which she establishes a different order of command from the one in operation outside of that space. Later come ironic references to literacy as an indicator of betterment (Susanna’s scathing comment on Marcellina having “read a couple of books”), the ribbons, the factory-produced, multipurpose pin, the valuable fiaschetto degli odori, the flowers, the furore, the fireworks and the forgiveness.

In Mozart’s score the women’s voices move in parallel or overlap, finishing each other’s phrases. The Count is not the only one to feel a degree of confusion. Yet Susanna acidly remarks that “women of my class don’t have headaches”, while in the Countess’s poignant Act III lament she bitterly complains of being reduced to depend on the charity of servants. Though we may have forgotten what divides these women, they have not. By the time the curtain falls we have three married couples in whose alliances some degree of social mobility can be seen. But Le nozze di Figaro is not a revolutionary opera in the sense that Kovanshchina is. For the gardener Antonio and the remainder of the workers on the Almaviva estate life is unchanged.

So what were the prospects for Susanna and Figaro the day after the night before? Traditionally a woman in service would serve her own family after marriage, doing the same or greater work but for no money at all. Married couples rarely served in the same household, let alone as “courier and confidential attaché” to the newly appointed ambassador to London. In that fast-growing city, however, a more attractive future for Susanna and her husband can be found in the real life history of Elizabeth Cullen, waiting maid to the Duchess of Hamilton.

Cullen, too, married a valet, William Almack, in the service of the Duke of Hamilton. The Almacks left service three years later and became proprietors of the Thatched House Tavern, then a gambling club, then founded Almack’s Assembly Rooms, where the now widowed and remarried Duchess presided over a membership committee that included the toast of society. St James may be many miles from Seville and the great revolution that would see the abolishment of droit de seigneur but perhaps this is where Susanna and Figaro would have felt most at home.

This article was originally commissioned by Opera North. We thank them for agreeing to reproduce it here.