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

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.