Sunday, March 6, 2011


One doesn’t hear the words “general factotum” much any more. I don’t know how it was that I became familiar with them; to me it seems like something I’ve always known, but if I had to guess, they were probably more in use in my folks’ generation and I picked them up there -- or possibly in my reading. And of course I doubt very much if I’ve ever had the need to use them. But I did know what they meant.

And lest I give a too-narrow explanation of them, I’ll just say that a factotum is a person having many diverse activities or responsibilities. It might be a hired servant, a jack-of-all-trades employee or a valued assistant to an important personage. The common denominator is that whatever this person did was of immense value to “the boss.”

Recently in my genealogical research I came into possession of a 1941 newspaper article from Belvidere, Illinois, that pertained to a distant relative and the article mentioned a general factotum. The relative was William J Hurlbut, a screenwriter in Hollywood whose claim to fame was that he wrote the screenplay for “The Bride of Frankenstein” in 1935. And “distant” means that he was my grandma Jessie’s second cousin. I don’t think she knew about him, as his folks lived in Illinois and her parents in Kansas. Nevertheless, in genealogy we researchers are always busy looking for someone interesting in our family. And Hurlbut was interesting.

He started out in New York City as a magazine illustrator and then switched to a playwright. After a decade of success on Broadway, he moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s. The newspaper article itself was interesting:

He (William) has built a most attractive home in the center of a movie colony just three blocks from the Hollywood bowl in the swanky suburb, Whitley Heights…. An oriental servant serves him as a general factotum in his home and garden, which is formally laid out and artistically fenced to provide privacy….
As I was nosing around the internet looking for more information on factotums, I came upon an interesting item about Bram Stoker, the author of “Dracula.” It says:
Abraham or 'Bram' Stoker is best known today for being the author of the classic horror novel Dracula (1897). The story of a vampire struggling to catch victims in his native superstition-ridden Transylvania who relocates to England in search of less wary prey.

However, in his heyday of late Victorian England, Stoker was more famous as the Business Manager and general factotum of the actor Henry Irving at London’s Lyceum Theatre. Stoker held this position for over twenty years and despite a heavy work schedule, which sometimes lasted up to eighteen hours a day, managed to write seventeen books including twelve novels.

I suspect that Hurlbut’s general factotum was more in the way of a “Man Friday” type of fellow, running the household (since Hurlbut never married) and the grounds. Bram Stoker was definitely a big step up above this!

Now why do I have this interest in general factotums?

I sometimes have this vague feeling that in my life I myself have pretty much been a general factotum of one kind or another, both at home and at work. I don’t think I did it intentionally, but it seems to me that it has played out that way, not having a profession or a calling or whatever else it was that the Feminine Mystique was trying to tell us women of the ‘50s.

I think I had a pattern imprinted on me early on for what women did, and I did it. I met my family’s expectations and did my jobs well. That I didn’t meet all my own internal expectations is no one’s fault but my own, and I refuse to mope about them.

However, I’m not done yet; I’ve got some time left to take on a myriad of things that are clamoring for attention.

General factotum aside, there's nothing that bucks me up more than finding and taking on a new project. So I'm looking....


marciamayo said...

I remember learning about the term factotum while reading a book about 30 years ago. I just wish I could remember the name of the book or the author. I do remember she was British and that I'd gotten the book from the library and when it came time to renew the book I wasn't finished and I couldn't renew it because someone was waiting to it. So, I went to the bookstore and bought the book. How can I remember all that but not the author and not the book? I'm going to do some sleuthing.

marciamayo said...

I finally remembered. Susan Howatch and the book was either Penmarric and Cashelmara. Neither was great literature but I learned the term factotum.

krvince said...

I think P.D. James, British murder mystery writer, had a covert government agent undercover as a "general factotum" or household work man in "Devices and Desires" or whichever one had to do with a nuclear power plant. The term was inserted wryly like something from the past which didn't fit in too well any more.