Social Class, British History; Continent: Europe

Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge

  • Entertaining book in its own right has the added bonus of helping you figure out who does what in “Downton Abbey”
  • 401 pages (Notes, etc. begin on page 326)

This book attracted me because its title suggests a focus on a group of people underrepresented in history textbooks – people without money or power. In fact, though, Lethbridge’s book is about servants inside the British Empire and their relationship to the privileged sorts who employed them. It turns out to be a broader topic than you might think, not just an explanation of what one keeps in a butler’s pantry or how many footmen one needs to serve a small dinner party. I’m going to use the word “economics” in this review, but don’t write off this book as dull yet. It’s actually very entertaining and sometimes surprising.

Factoring in Economics and Women’s Rights

Lethbridge discusses the economic and social factors that allowed the upstairs-downstairs culture of Edwardian England to develop. The well-to-do households of Victorian and Edwardian England flourished with the robust economy of an empire, allowing the employ of dozens of servants to perform every conceivable task. This period yielded the “gracious living” of prewar “Downton Abbey.”

When World War I ripped Europe apart, British men in domestic service flocked to enlist in the military, and their female counterparts picked up the slack to keep up appearances at the big country house or local factory. When these veterans came home, “the right thing to do” was for a woman to give up her wartime job to a returning veteran. It proved hard to get the post-WWI British woman out of the factory, however, in spite of some social repercussions for her reputation. The money was relatively good, and the liberty was unmatched for a working-class girl around twenty years old. Women’s suffrage began to be taken seriously.

By World War II, finding someone looking for a job in domestic service was more difficult, and interested applicants were less likely to seek a live-in arrangement. In post-WWII Britain, the working-class housewife was increasingly doing things for herself with her washing machine and vacuum cleaner, while her social “betters” in the big house on the hill were scraping by with whatever servants they could afford to keep and the same household practices their grandparents had insisted upon.

A Class unto Themselves

Crucially, Lethbridge makes the point repeatedly that the people who entered domestic service became a class unto themselves. With room and board factored in, the Edwardian or Victorian domestic service worker might live in a somewhat nicer style than someone on tiny, ramshackle subsistence farm. Certainly, they ate more regularly. Even so, working-class people and farmers looked upon them with disdain for taking orders ― bowing and scraping ― to some lordling and his spoiled children. Village shopkeepers might treat the housekeeper at the local manor with thinly veiled contempt.

Meanwhile, of course, the household servants were certainly not considered the equals of their employers. Uniforms typically ensured that no random visitor to the well-to-do household could mistake servant for master. As disliked as they were by the servants in the big country house, uniforms were a particular hot button with the maids employed by the middle class. After all, who did Mr. and Mrs. Middle Class think they were?

Edwardian servants were to be nearly invisible to his lordship and his family while keeping a household operational, coming and going by their own doors (often disguised as part of the wall or as bookshelves). However, the upstairs domestic servants like butlers and ladies’ maids had refined manners and a strong sense of propriety, were often more literate than the village working class, and had a knowledge of current events from being immersed in the lives of the powerful. In other words, not necessarily a good fit at the country village’s pub.

Voices and Overall Impressions

What makes Lucy Lethbridge’s a book you can stick with is that she makes her points about economic and social factors with anecdotes rather than a series of graphs and numbers. While her book isn’t exactly narrative, you can relate to the people she has interviewed for her material. She included the recollections of both employers and employees and treated them with the same degree of respect. Both groups described some of the absurdly impractical means of keeping up appearances and share memories of their interactions. These anecdotes sometimes offer a chuckle or make you wonder. Overall, though, they are quite personal, and they address the ways that the relationship between employer and employee evolved over a span of about a century.

Lethbridge has more to say in her book, so I’ve only highlighted a couple of the major take-home points. Maybe this is a book one comes to for some insight into what’s happening on “Downton Abbey,” but a book that one finishes for the ideas she asks you to consider.

Image: Public domain. Hogarth’s Servants by William Hogarth, mid-1750s. Remarkably for his era, Hogarth doesn’t depict his staff performing their functions. Instead, their portraits are very humanizing. Chieck it out for yourself at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hogarths-Servants.jpg

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One thought on “Social Class, British History; Continent: Europe

  1. The diversity of your reviews continues to amaze.

    I know this is not your intent, but this diverse portfolio should interest the book reviewer of a major (you, of course, beginning anonymous). But, you are indeed demonstrating an ability to review well a broad range of historical writings.

    Not my cup of tea; I consistently read trashy novels. But, really well-done.

    —Dad

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