'Servants' author Lucy Lethbridge talks about the real history of domestic service in Britain

What's the truth behind beloved TV series like 'Downton Abbey' and 'Upstairs, Downstairs'? Lucy Lethbridge, author of 'Servants,' sought out primary sources to learn the reality of life as a domestic servant in Britain.

Kiloran Howard/courtesy of author
Lucy Lethbridge, author of 'Servants,' says stories from series like 'Downton Abbey' and 'Upstairs, Downstairs' 'speak an international language of class and aspiration.'

Is the hit television series “Downton Abbey” fact or fiction? A bit of both, says Lucy Lethbridge, author of Servants, a history of domestic service in Britain from the Edwardian Era through the 1970s. Lethbridge searched letters and diaries, in addition to doing dozens of interviews, to piece together a firsthand history of life “downstairs” in British middle- and upper-class homes.

Here she talks with Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe about the compelling tradition of domestic service.

Q. Is there something uniquely British about domestic service?

I do not think elaborate hierarchies of domestic service are unique to Britain. In India, for example, the enormous households of the very rich eclipsed in magnificence and excess anything the British could come up with. But I do think the British style of grand country house living created a particular tradition of service that proved remarkably durable. Yet the stereotypical British servant figures of the solemn butler, the deferential footman, the skittish maid, and the red-faced cook seem to speak an international language of class and aspiration. A friend of mine was recently in Juba, South Sudan, where she was elbowed aside by huge crowds at the airport rushing to watch old episodes of “Upstairs, Downstairs” broadcast on a public television.

Q: Was life worse for female domestics?

Yes, I think the lot of female domestics was by and large much worse than that of their male counterparts. In 1900, almost all domestics were women, and very few of them were working in the kind of comfortable workplace enjoyed by the servants in “Downton Abbey.” The vast majority were single-handed maids working 12-hour days for penny-pinching middle-class employers who gave them half a day off a week. The only escape from drudgery was marriage.

Q: Your book includes stories of both cruelty and great tenderness. Overall, how would you characterize the relationships you discovered?

It was a complex mix. It is very hard to draw broad conclusions about the knotty problem of the servant/employer relationship, and I found that while I was writing my book, the moment I thought I’d nailed it as a simple matter of tyranny, then I would find a case of genuine love and loyalty that confounded my thesis entirely. I think it is important to remember the context in which these relationships operated: The domestic world of 19th- and early 20th-century Britain then was so different from today. People of all backgrounds on the whole accepted both deference and noblesse oblige to an extent which would seem extraordinary to us.

But among the upper classes, there was a tradition of care for their staff, regarded as a duty.

Q: Do you have a favorite story from the book?

I particularly enjoyed [the story of] an old dowager living in London in the late 1930s. It is told by Celia Fremlin, who was a social researcher who went undercover to investigate what life was like for a domestic servant at the time. She got herself a job as a kitchen maid for the dowager and has left a wonderful description of the eight servants, from the butler downwards, being mobilized to make her ladyship a supper consisting of a cup of hot chocolate and a digestive biscuit. It was, Fremlin says, as if they were using “a crane to pick up a safety pin.”

Q: Did employers ever tire of being waited on? Would many of us enjoy such a system today?

I think many people were relieved when domestic service in the old-fashioned sense came to an end in the Second World War. I remember my grandmother, who had servants as a young wife in the 1930s, saying what a pleasure it was to be able to cook her own meals (in fact, what a pleasure it was to learn to cook), and to have conversations without wondering who might be listening. It would be difficult now to bring back that traditional form of service because it was accompanied by all sorts of inequalities that would make us now feel very uncomfortable.

Q: Would contemporary Britain be a different place if such relationships had never existed?

The British lagged far behind Europe and the United States in our adoption of household technologies. In fact, we were remarkably resistant to any labor-saving devices while manual labor remained plentiful. At its worst, the history of domestic service shows the British to be class-ridden and hidebound.

But there is another side – and the history of service is also, sometimes, [a story] of co-dependency and mutual respect. One shouldn’t be too rose-spectacled about it, but there are few places even today where two people of radically different backgrounds can share their living space in such proximity. When it worked, it worked.

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