I like reading about the downstairs folk, and have ever since Upstairs Downstairs was popular on TV. But I never really gave much thought to the lives of those working downstairs. Probably because I always aspired to an Upstairs life. Yeah, like that’ll ever happen.
One of the nice fiction series on this theme was The Swallowcliffe Hall Trilogy, which seemed to rely heavily on fact and truth and not so much on the misty glorification of the servant class and their lovely lives that weren’t all that lovely.
Life Below Stairs is a factual compilation of the way of life for servants in the Edwardian age. We learn that just one hundred years ago, service was the largest form of employment in the UK.
With millions of families living in stifling poverty in the Edwardian era, going into service was a sought-after alternative to near starvation, but it was no easy option. From scullery maid to housekeeper and butler, the domestic servant was at the beck and call of their master and mistress every hour of the day. Up with the lark and toiling well into the night, they were rewarded with meagre wages and sparse, comfort-free accommodation in the attic or basement. While their employers dined on nine-course meals, costing up to six times a maid’s annual wage, employees were treated to the leftover cold cuts in the basement kitchen.
But the First World War was the end of what we might think of as the golden age of domestic service, as the men of the servant class went into the military, and the women left service to take up the much better paying jobs left behind by the men gone to war.
The book uses scraps of memoirs and diaries of servants of the time, and books written after their life in service had ended, for its wonderful detailed look at this institution, now nostalgia-filled and even glorified. Well, yeah. Wouldn’t you want a house full of servants to do your every bidding? Yeah, me, too.
It is interesting to discover that Mrs Beeton, she of of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, written in 1861, in advising young people on seeking domestic employment in foreign parts, advises they go to Australia, because in America, service was looked down upon as a career.
Oooohkay, that’s why I couldn’t have a house filled with cheap servants.
Really nice book for you history buffs.