Friday, 24 February 2012

The Downton Effect: The History of Domestic Service in Britain

The profound success of the historical-drama-cum-soap-opera Downton Abbey on both sides of the Atlantic has provoked a variety of reactions from the fawning to the revolted. Historian Simon Schama, in a rather colourful turn of phrase, has termed it "cultural necrophilia." Other critics point to the inherent conservatism of the show, and its possible correlation to contemporary politics. Underlying themes seem to emphasize deference to hierarchy, tradition, keeping one's place and, presumably, respecting one's "betters." In a previous "Eating Like an Edwardian" post I explored the mythology of the Edwardian country house in a grittier film, The Shooting Party, and what this paternalistic world really entailed.

All this aside, the show has certainly demonstrated a wellspring of nostalgia and prompted some historical reflection on what it might have been like to actually work as a domestic servant in Edwardian England. For one thing, it would have involved a great deal more backbreaking work than is depicted in the show, particularly for lowly scullery maids such as that of the character Daisy (later upgraded to kitchen maid). A real-life scullery maid would have been kept busy from dawn to sundown performing dirty, difficult, menial tasks. She would have had considerably less time at her disposal to moon over footman Thomas or discuss not wishing to marry the doomed soldier William. Nevertheless, the show is adept at demonstrating the range of servants employed by a country house in this period, and the subtle yet important gradations of rank -- levels of hierarchy which were as important below stairs as above them.

[The servant cast of Downton Abbey lined up outside the great house -- ITV]

Co-incidentally I recently read Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant by Jeremy Musson. The author charts the changes and continuities of the grand "household" from 1400 to the present. Although the book is heavy on minutiae and detail (albeit often fascinating in itself), Musson also strikes a balance with drawing out larger themes. He demonstrates how the composition of households among the landed classes showcased status, societal values, and changing notions of the private and public.

Tudor and Stuart households were distinct from more recent incarnations in two major ways: the majority of the household consisted of male servants, and there was little spatial distinction between masters and servants. The nature of work and the need to demonstrate a "visible and glorious household" lent itself to the employ of male servants. This was especially important as servants often doubled as bodyguards or soldiers -- the physical safety of the manor was still often in peril. These male servants might include young scions of aristocratic families who were expected to learn about the work of nobility - for them, certainly, "servant" would not have held the pejorative status that we associate with it. The "household" during this period was more likely to refer to all members living under the same roof, regardless of status and there was often little or no buffer of privacy between master and servants. Some commonly slept in the same room in case the latter were required. It was only after the Restoration period that ideas about personal privacy moved to the forefront, and with it the notion that money and privilege entitled a noble family to an existence in which the menial tasks of the household occurred out of sight.

The eighteenth and particularly the nineteenth centuries saw the full flowering of this "revolution" in privacy. New country houses were specifically designed with separate servants' quarters, back stairs, and amenities which would enable the serving of meals, the cleaning of rooms, and the general care of the "upstairs" household with maximum invisibility. Within servant's quarters extreme care was taken to separate classes of servants and male and female quarters, in keeping with the strictures of the new morality.

In the eighteenth century, the parading of servants became less about showing one's power (in a very survivalist, utilitarian sense as had been the case in previous eras), and more about "conspicuous consumption." The grandest houses employed only the tallest, best-looking footmen dressed in expensive livery -- they were items of display. Prior to the abolition of slavery young slave boys were also imported from the West Indies as exotic playthings, essentially novelties to be shown off at dinner parties.

The "long nineteenth century" -- the Victorian era running into the Edwardian era -- represented the "apogee" of the country house ideal. In fact it was an ideal with longstanding longevity. I recently watched an excellent series The Victorian Kitchen, filmed in 1989. Although the cook Ruth Mott, by then certainly in her late seventies, had worked in country houses in the 1920s and 1930s she was eminently qualified to present a true representation of a "Victorian kitchen." Dishes and methods of cooking did not change substantially for more than 100 years, until the advent of the refrigerator and postwar prepared foods.

This was the age of "propriety" in the household. Displaying wealth continued to be important, but so did appearances and moral conduct. The high moral standards expected by servants at Downton reflect this priority -- Ethel's illegitimate child might well have met with a less severe reaction two centuries earlier. The late Victorian era also represented the height of the wealth and power of the landed aristocracy. Although agricultural revenues and rents started to fall in the late 1800s, the true "credit crisis" for this class took a good fifty years to truly work itself out. As continues to be the case, connections and a good name count for much in easing the occasional financial distress. But serious shortfalls could not be papered over forever.

The First World War and most particularly the Second, wrought immense changes in the country house lifestyle. At the close of the second season of Downton there is little indication of the scale of these changes, as they would take some time to fully occur. Income taxes and death duties eroded the revenue of much of the landed gentry, and among those grand houses which escaped the wrecking ball, many were deeded to the National Trust. The labour-intensive lifestyle of the landed gentleman became unfeasible for another reason: a life of domestic service simply lost its appeal for the young. Whereas earlier generations saw service as a means to gain experience, perhaps rise in the world, and certainly benefit from a roof over one's head and a good supply of healthy food (in a time of rampant starvation in the industrial cities), a new generation saw greater opportunities in factory labour, the trades, or in cities. They had no interest in the long hours and lack of freedom represented by these occupations -- "service" became synonymous with being subservient in this new egalitarian age.

Further reading, in exquisite detail, from the blog "Jane Austen's World":
A link to descriptions of servant life and the servant's quarters.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 


Classical Bookworm said...

"cultural necrophilia" Heh. I love Simon Schama. I'd have to say the unlikely plot twists are more of a flaw than any lack of historical realism, but who cares?! The frocks! The house! The impeccable hair! It's a fantasy where even the downtrodden and the rebellious are happy and safe and always, always polite. ;)

Jennings and Gates said...

Great post. We've just added you to our must-read blog list. I think part of the fascination with Downton Abbey is, possibly not so much a desire to return to the inequalities of the period, but a longing for order and dare I say, etiquette in our modern lives. We threw off the constraints of earlier eras under the banner of "I Gotta Be Me!", but as a result threw the baby out with the bath water.

IdleHistorian said...

Thank you for your nice comment, Jennings and Gates! I do agree, etiquette remains as important now as ever.

Classic Bookworm - yes, indeed, Downton Abbey is, in the end, simply downright good fun!

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