Sat 1st Nov 2014 | Last updated: Fri 31st Oct 2014 at 16:19pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo

Comment & Blogs

Don’t believe in Downton: what life ‘below stairs’ was really like

A new book gives an eye-opening account of the history of servants in Britain

By on Thursday, 4 April 2013

Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey.

Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey.

Miss Lucy Lethbridge, once upon a time the literary editor of The Catholic Herald, has written a book that should be required reading for all Downton Abbey addicts. As I may have mentioned before now, I found Downton far from relaxing as I was forever shouting at the television over some terrible faux pas made by the scriptwriters, who seemed to have little grasp of the way that masters and servants related to each other. Please note that terminology. The concept of employers and employees was something that replaced ‘service’ at some point in the twentieth century.

Miss Lethbridge’s book is entitled Servants, A Downstairs View of Twentieth Century Britain. In it she reveals that, unlike in the world of Downton, servants had to work long hours, and quite a lot of what they did was boring and pointless. Take, for example, the question of centralising egg yolks, which until now was a “common breakfast necessity” of which I was not aware. “Eveline Askwith, in her vicar’s household in Harrogate, was one of many who had to master the art of stirring the breakfast eggs continuously while they were boiling – so that the yolks were positioned perfectly in the middle of the white; if they were off-centre, they were sent back, and the process started all over again.” This makes one realise that much of the work done by servants was invented for them to keep them busy, and having lots of servants was very much a matter of social status. In addition to number, the look of the servants was important: footmen had to be a certain height, and a tall parlourmaid was better paid than a short one.

This picture of hard work, even drudgery, is somewhat absent from the portrayal of servant life in fiction. Take Jane Austen, for example. All her fictional households have servants, and some of them even have names. Mr Woodhouse’s cook is called Searle, and understands how to boil an egg and how to make gruel. But Searle never speaks and we do not know whether Searle is a man or a woman. (As a servant, Searle gets no honorific.) The lowest real character in social standing in the world of Emma is the apothecary Mr Perry. Looking at the corpus of Jane Austen’s novels as a whole, there is only one person of lower social standing than Mr Perry, and who might be considered working class, and that is Nurse Rooke in Persuasion. She receives some deft touches of characterisation, but stands alone for the huge silent majority of humanity in whom the novelist has no interest. And this was not because Jane Austen was heartless; far from it; it was because, as a woman of her social class, she had no real understanding of people who did not belong to that class. They simply did not interest her. They would not have interested the upper class residents of Downton either; in fact, even less, given that they were of a much higher social status than Jane Austen.

One hates to sound like a dreary Marxist, but Downton Abbey is a story about repression dressed up as fanciful costume drama. Servants were working class, and at the bottom, in a sense, of the working classes, in that they seemed not to have any real political clout, unlike, for example, the miners. Servants never went on strike, and never (or hardly ever) murdered their masters. In fact many servants, and here Downton is surely correct, were extreme social conservatives, or as some would no doubt put it, they freely co-operated with the unjust social system that repressed them. But a job was a job: true, the pay was low, but most servants lived in, and more importantly ate in; there would have been, in wasteful big houses, plenty of opportunities for pilfering, and for being given cast off clothes; in an era of widespread poverty, especially in the countryside, these were not advantages to be passed by.

The heyday of domestic service is generally seen as the eve of the First World War, but as Miss Lethbridge points out, a hundred years later, there are probably more servants in London than ever before. They are all around us, though they may be invisible to many. On this matter, as on so many others, Miss Lethbridge’s book is a real eye-opener. I, for one, will never look at a hard boiled egg again without checking first to see if its yolk has been centralised.

  • mikethelionheart

    This is a mildly interesting article (at least for a History teacher like me) but, in a Catholic newspaper, as pointless as centralising egg yolks.
    Well written as usual, though.

  • Cogito Dexter

    There’s no reason why a Catholic newspaper shouldn’t carry a commentary or opinion piece on the subject of social justice, even if it relates to perceptions of life ‘in service’ as portrayed in fiction. I’d have thought it would be an important topic, what with the emergence of the ‘new aristocracy’ in the form of the Super Rich. It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that the concept of being ‘in service’ might make a come back as we progress through the next century and those growing up today discover that the previous 50-70 years were a time of golden socioeconomic opportunity that today’s generation has little chance of emulating…

  • $28180339

    So Father, what are you trying to say that the Irish Catholic chauffeur with Marxist inclinations had no chance to marry the daughter of his Anglican English lord employer then move to Dublin with her to live happily ever after, but after she dies in childbirth, he moves back to become his now father-in-law’s estate manager & baptizes the baby Catholic witnessed by the Protestant in-laws all on eve of Irish independence? My bubble has just been busted!

    But you must admit having Maggie Smith’s strong, proper character in the same scenes as Shirley MacLaine’s progressive one was a blast to watch!

  • CatholicDowntonFan

    I’m always amazed at how many people seem to think Downton Abbey is a documentary. It is a work of escapist fiction in the guise of lavish costume drama, and for those of us who like that sort of thing, it is highly enjoyable.

  • DavidO

    Downton Abbey is a travesty …primarily because modern modes of speech and attitude are
    attributed to people who lived in a very class-stratified society in the
    1920’s…if you want to see a more authentic drama representing that time, take a
    look at ‘Parade’s end’, ‘The remains of the day’, ‘Gosford Park’ or ‘Upstairs,
    Downstairs’…

  • lewispbuckingham

    But then if you were an English teacher this would be one of your hot topics in media studies film and television.

  • Michael Hoffman

    I stopped watching Downton Abbey with last year’s season featuring World War I and the end of the war. Christianity was a barely perceptible presence through it all. It was obvious the script exhibited a nearly 21st century deism/agnosticism dressed up in a few fleeting Christian references and then put forth in garments, attire and mannerisms from 95 years ago. The kind of evangelical displays and fervor which many English working class servants would have exhibited were profoundly muted if not entirely suppressed. The upper class too had its very devout persons. Downton showed almost none of this. The series programs viewers into thinking the people of Britain have always been blandly irreligious, go-through-the-motions type of people. A very false picture of post-World War I Britian. No more Downton for me.

  • mikethelionheart

    Unlikely.
    Still irrelevant though.

  • Rosemary

    My 30 y-o daughter and I noticed the irregularities in DA. The familiarity between servants and family were odd and anachronistic. No lady would have asked her maid for personal advice or comment, and never would a daughter have been allowed to marry out of her class; well, I could go on and on. Servants were little more than paid slaves. It was a sort of welfare done on a smaller scale than today. Each family had to support many people. Fortunately, we got rid of those families and their estates so we could create one, great big estate that we can all share in the benefits! Er, and the expenses, too. (I almost forgot!)

  • Madame Chantal

    I’ve never watched Downton Abbey, but I have enjoyed Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels. I can’t help but wonder what Miss Lethbridge would have to say about the character of Maisie, who rises from 13 year old downstairs maid in 1914 to well-connected private detective in 1930. Of course, detective novels are fantasies of a peculiar sort, but the author seems to be a conscientous researcher.

  • Susie Sharpe

    My grandmother was a housekeeper. Her life was very hard. I too shouted at Downton Abbey for being inaccurate.