Royalty and the aristocracy in many societies have relied on the labor of servants to make their lives more comfortable and their social standing higher for hundreds of years. Servants were common amongst the elite of nineteenth-century Britain; in fact, at the turn of the twentieth century, there were more servants than factory workers in the country. While the Earnshaw and Linton families do not have titles, such as Duke or Lord, they own land and large houses that have been in the families for generations. When Lockwood first visits Wuthering Heights, he notices “a quantity of grotesque carving” and the date “1500” above the front door, indicating that the house and family have a long lineage.
The characters of Nelly Dean and Joseph highlight the close but desperately unequal relationships that could span generations between wealthy, landed families and the servants they employed. Nelly’s mother “nursed Mr. Hindley Earnshaw,” so Nelly grows up alongside the family. And when Catherine Earnshaw moves to Thrushcross Grange after her marriage, Nelly has “but one choice left, to do as I was ordered” and accompany her mistress. Servants were sometimes treated as a kind of property, but as Nelly’s story reveals, they also often ended up knowing a great deal about the intimate lives of the families for whom they worked.