11000175893_cd8ca008f1_oLucy Lethbridge’s recently published “Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times,” is a meticulously researched and detailed account of the work and lives of those who were “in service.” Its focus is primarily on the epitome of form and formality achieved during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Lethbridge chronicles the situation between masters and servants as it really was. Shockingly, though, little mention is made of servants in histories and diaries of the period given how ubiquitous they were. Both the heights and depths of how the British aristocracy and their servants lived reached surprising extremes.

The men and women who spent their lives in service occupied an awkward social position in which they were neither equals of their employers nor fully accepted by the less exalted classes from which they came who saw them as perpetuating the evils of a rigidly stratified society. Though at the turn of the 20th century there were still vast numbers of people employed in service in Great Britain, (1.6 million) both World Wars I and II brought such significant economic and social upheaval that their ranks were thinned to almost nothing. The vast fortunes that allowed titled families to live in their ancestral homes sometimes for as many as 700 continuous years dwindled while the social framework that supported their way of life frayed and and unraveled within just a few decades.

The wildly popular TV series, Downton Abbey gives both a true and a distorted picture of life on a grand country estate. The lives of the Crawley family and their servants illustrate, with faithful accuracy, the effort and expenditure required to maintain an enterprise of this kind. There were strict rules governing not only the interactions between the employers and their help, but also between the servants of various levels as well. “Below stairs,” where the servants did their work, life was regimented with military precision and attention to rank. The most highly placed servants often had their own staff  to wait on them, as well as private quarters, and sitting rooms.

For the most part however, the situation for those in service was not nearly as benign as depicted in Downtown Abbey.  Many grand estates employed so many help that the family hardly knew  (or didn’t know) most of them. One former maid reported that in two years at Woburn, she only met the Duchess once. “The Duke of Devonshire,” Lethbridge writes, “found that two hundred servants were the barest minimum necessary to look after a house party of fifty people.” It was not unusual to find a regular staff of 40 indoor servants and an equal or greater number outdoor crew to care for the grounds. There was often a great deal of turnover, and some employers had rigid prejudices and standards (e.g. a minimum height requirement) about who they were willing to hire. Job security was non-existent.

So was freedom. The servants were required to work long hours with often very low wages, and almost no time off. Many employers demanded that they attend church (the Church of England, only–often Catholics were not permitted) and sit in “servants pews” when they did so. Their quarters, meanwhile, were often dark and damp. One “benevolent” mistress claimed she did not want to make the servants’ rooms too comfortable as they might then be disturbingly unfamiliar. If someone in service became ill, they lost their position and thus their home. The idea of the benevolent master who would look after their staff through thick and thin was mostly a myth. The inequity of this situation is one of the things leading up to the passage of a bill for mandatory unemployment and medical insurance proposed by Lloyd George in 1911.

Far from the warm picture depicted in Downton Abbey, relations between servants and masters were cool and distant. The former were not fully recognized as fellow sentient beings—their feelings were not considered and their employers generally carried on  social (and even physical) functions as if the servants were not there. In some households, maids were literally required to turn their faces to the wall if “his Lordship” walked through a room where they were working. While there were many notable exceptions, the “inequality between servant and master. . . was a ‘special vice’ of Victorian England.”

The story line on the show in which Tom Branson, the Irish chauffeur, falls in love with and marries one of the Crawley daughters, is wildly improbable. While there may have been some illicit sexual activity between the two classes (see Gosford Park, also written by Julian Fellowes but much less sunny), the idea that the Earl’s daughter would marry a (Catholic!) servant who would subsequently be welcomed into the family fold is unlikely. Indeed, the snobbery, sense of entitlement  and self-satisfaction of the British upper class during this period defies imagination—loose change was “washed” and shoelaces were ironed, and every imaginable function was performed for them by someone else. (One elderly aristocrat who survived into the 1960s is described as needing a staff of seven to serve her a TV dinner.) They were loath to accept any encroachment on their customs.

One important aspect well-depicted in the show is how “densely peopled was the Edwardian home.” Even in the lesser houses, there were many more “human souls” about. This may be the the most important contrast to they way we live today. This difference might be responsible for much of the series’ appeal.  On Downton Abbey, there is a vast network of families—not just one, but two. There was almost a “hothouse” environment which, while it may have led to conflict, made life seem much less lonely. Families tended to live together and between this and the live-in staff,  life was full of human interaction. This was one of the reasons why, according to Freud, who developed his theory of psychoanalysis during this era, there was a need for such rigid rules and repression. Many of the neurotics that he saw in his consulting room were a result of this dense and “overstimulating” environment. Today’s therapists, in contrast, almost never encounter patients with the kind of “hysterical neuroses” that he treated and based his theories on.

Instead, the complaints of our time are those of what Heinz Kohut, one of the most prominent theorists to revise modern psychoanalysis, called the “under-stimulated self.” Rather than the conflicts and guilt that the overpopulated Victorian and Edwardian families gave rise to, today’s patients suffer from loneliness, emptiness, and depression. Their symptoms often involve  attempts to stimulate themselves or soothe feelings (addictions, self-harming behavior, etc.) that arise when someone has been raised in the impoverished human environment that characterize families in modern times: few people,  interacting sometimes only minutes a day with little or no family network in close proximity, and certainly no servants to fill in the emotional gaps.

Life at Downton Abbey, however, is never lonely or empty. Inside that vast castle there is always someone afoot. Lady Mary has not only her own father to look after her, but also the ever-present, deeply committed Carson, the butler, who has known her since birth. Meanwhile, her ladies maid Anna is an intimate advisor, while Anna’s husband, Bates, serves this function for her father. Grandmother lives in the village, but seems to drop by daily. Visitors and dinner guests are constantly on the scene. Her sister(s) live at Downton. And when it comes time to find a husband, she  need not look beyond another daily visitor: her cousin, Matthew.

Of course we fell in love with this way of life. Beyond the glamorous costumes, fabulous interiors, and splendid scenery, Downton Abbey provides us a tale of a rich family life gone by that few of us remember, and few of any class can achieve these days. In the end, it is this richly populated human world that makes the show so appealing to the 21st century audience. At Downton Abbey, there is always someone home.


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  • B. Ellioyy December 26, 2013 at 11:59 am

    Very insightful. Thank you for this interesting analysis.

  • Tobysgirl December 26, 2013 at 9:51 am

    As someone who DID NOT fall in love with Downton Abbey, I appreciate the dose of realism regarding servant life. I found it absurd to watch servants touching their employers except to assist them in dressing, bathing, etc.

    What bothers me about this series is the abysmal writing, and the fact that few people seem to notice it. The dialogue is painful it is so stilted and simplistic. Have viewers lost all appreciation for good writing? When I watched the first series I thought Fellowes must have had a set of 3×5 cards which he looked at whenever he didn’t know what to do next with the plot.