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Book review: 'Servants' serves a feast of information on England's downstairs history

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 10:54 a.m. MDT

"Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times" is by Lucy Lethbridge. (W.W. Norton)

Editor’s note: The fourth season of “Downton Abbey” will start airing on Jan. 5 on PBS, and a fifth one has recently been announced, too. Until then, here is one of several books that have crossed out desks recently that explore aspects of the show and the era.

"SERVANTS: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times,” by Lucy Lethbridge, W.W. Norton, $27.95, 400 pages (nf)

“Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times” interestingly reads like a series of anecdotes and statistics. Beginning with the Victorian era, the book moves steadily through modern times as it explores the plight of domestic service through the world wars, economic depression and advent of modern technology in England.

After learning the harsh histories of Britain’s segregated, indivisible domestics, it seems Daisy and Mrs. Patmore of PBS’ popular “Downton Abbey” have it awfully good. (Incidentally, no mention is made of “Downton” in the book’s 385 pages.)

The complex rules and expectations of life as a master or servant are revealed through author Lucy Lethbridge’s extensive research. Quotes from former servants and references to literature unearth the intricate rules, dress codes and general psychology of the master and servant relationship.

"Servants" emphasizes the deep inequality that existed between England’s master and maid, which played a significant role in England’s history. Rich or middle class, life in a household without servants’ cheap labor was unthinkable.

Lethbridge entertains when she shares the antics of the helpless upper crust. For example, a Lord Curzon, celebrated for his intellect, is baffled by how to open his bedroom window late one night. No servant is available, so he smashes the glass with a fireplace log.

Even with the advent of technology, England’s upper class continued to prefer human service. It felt, for example, that electricity was a greater fire hazard than candles. And labor-saving technology would just make the maids lazy. The country’s deep-seated traditions and nostalgia for the past explain why they resisted the new ways and clung to domestic service for so long.

“Servants” isn’t juicy reading, but it is organized and informative. Of the numerous quotes and stories, nothing objectionable or risqué is shared. That the servants were largely considered part of the furnishings more than the family is eye opening. After all, “things did not go smoothly unless everyone knew where they stood.”

Megan Gladwell is an Indiana native and mother of four. She blogs at bookclub41.blogspot.com and her email is mlgladwell@gmail.com.

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