Friday, October 03, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Servants

Here's some non fiction for a change!  Servants by Lucy Lethbridge is one of those not-too-scholarly social history books intended for the general public.  Downton Abbey fans especially will appreciate it. It covers the history of domestic service in Great Britain, from the late Victorian period to today, with the bulk of the material focused on the Edwardian era.

And there's so much fascinating material!  I think most of us have seen either Downton Abbey or Gosford Park or similar movies that portray the upstairs/downstairs life.  Downton Abbey definitely glosses over the more unpleasant realities of service, such as the expectation that servants turn their faces to the wall whenver their employers were in the room. Lethbridge includes extracts from the memoires of servants of the day, which show that servant/employer relations varied greatly from family to family.  Also, there was a big difference between serving in the country estate of an aristocratic family and serving for a middle class family.  According to Lethbridge, the middle classes, who had less money and more insecurity, were more likely to treat their servants shabbily.

The period right before World War I seems to have been they heyday of households with legions of servants: scullery maids, housemaids, parlourmaids, ladies' maids, footmen.  The closer you worked to the family areas of the house, the more presentable you had to be.  Footmen and parlourmaids were often hired for their appearance.  One duke insisted that all his housemaids be at least 5' 10".

The war threw a wrench into the system as those who had worked in service found opportunities elsewhere, and after the war were reluctant to return to it. This brought about the great handwringing over the "servant problem."  If you read British novels that are set any time after World War I, there are usually references to the servant problem, or else a touchy servant character who does her work poorly and with ill grace but whose employers are comically terrified that she will leave.  The 1930's saw a resurgence of the traditional domestic service system, but World War II, and the advent of labor-saving technology pretty much killed it forever.

Non-fiction can be tough going sometimes, but Servants is engaging enough to read in bed at the end of a long day.  I now intend to read some of the memoires that Lethbridge refers to.


  1. I love non-fiction. This sounds like something I would totally enjoy.

  2. I've seen this book around and have wanted to read it. Now I HAVE to.

  3. Looks fascinating. I like non-fiction.

    Right now I am enjoying "The Towers of Trebizond". Enjoying it immensely! Thanks.

  4. I love this genre and your recommendation is great. This one is on my ever-growing list!