A Downstairs History of Britain From the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times

Lethbridge, Lucy

Book - 2013
Average Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.
A compassionate and discerning exploration of the complex relationship between the server, the served, and the world they lived in, Servants opens a window onto British society from the Edwardian period to the present.

Publisher: New York :, W. W. Norton & Company,, c2013.
Edition: First American Edition.
ISBN: 0393241092
Characteristics: xi 385 p. :,ill. ;,24 cm


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Jan 09, 2015
  • athompson10 rated this: 3.5 stars out of 5.

Very interesting social history about a topic that's not often studied. The author traces the evolution of the domestic servant, the British household and the changing times from the 1800s to present day, with most of the focus on the period from 1900-1950.

Jul 07, 2014
  • zipread rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain --- by Lucy Lethbridge. Perhaps encouraged by the popularity of the recent BBC program “Downton Abbey” a keen interest has developed among many of its viewers about the lives not only of those who lived “upstairs” but also the lives and obligations of those who lived beneath the stairs to work “in service” downstairs. A tradition of the eighteenth century for some of the titled and wealthy that spread among the lesser nobility during the nineteenth century and then even to the professional classes before it met its ultimate (and inevitable) demise under the twin disasters of the first World War, and, finally, World War Two. In the great houses and on the great estates of nineteenth century England (and it was chiefly England) there laboured a virtual army of groomers and coachmen; cooks and chefs; butlers and maids; chauffeurs and footmen hard at work tending fireplaces, plucking pheasants, lighting candles, emptying chamber pots, and carrying virtual oceans of hot water up two and three flights of stairs for the lord’s bath. Lucy Lethbridge crafts an elegant work with considerable insight and considerable empathy for her book's subjects. By necessity, Lethbridge’s book must delve into diaries, of which there are few: most servants were illiterate and most masters ignored their help as a matter of principle, with some going so far as to instruct their servants to turn around and face the wall when they were met in the hall. It seems, that in many cases, servants were neither seen nor to be heard. Lethbridge must use the historical method: she delves into it with gusto. The extensive bibliography and extensive footnotes stand in testimony to the enthusiasm with which she dives into historical methodology. Rarely does one encounter such an enthralling work of social history that is as beguiling as this volume. Absorbing to read.

Apr 25, 2014
  • Emma1917 rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

Easily one of the best social histories I've read. Meticulously researched, beautifully written--very well done.

Jan 07, 2014
  • abroomfi rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

Lucy Lethbridge’s _Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times_ is the best comprehensive history I have seen on the topic of domestic labour in Great Britain.

Using a methodology that resembles that of my favorite historian, David Kynaston (see _Austerity Britain: 1944-1951_ for example), Lethbridge did a copious amount of primary research, relying on diaries, correspondence, newspaper columns, and interviews with former servants and employers to tell the complicated story of life below stairs. Lethbridge also brings in fictional accounts, as well as devoting time in her final chapter to the popular 1970s ITV series, _Upstairs, Downstairs_.

Lethbridge does a superb job of documenting her sources, using both endnotes and a bibliography that will guide scholars and interested readers who wish to pursue this topic further.

What I most appreciate about this study is Lethbridge’s determination to update the story of domestic labour by moving past the Victorian and Edwardian era (where the bulk of scholarship on the topic exists) and instead detailing the decline of the occupation after World War Two. In doing so, she has answered many of my own questions about the status of domestic service in Great Britain today, going so far as to discuss the domestic recruitment agencies, such as Greycoat Lumleys and Norland Agency for nannies. Who employs a full battery of domestic servants after World War II up to today? Lethbridge has done extensive research to answer this question and also to determine how the relationships between employers and servants have changed and why. She even goes into the semantics, how terms such as “servant” and “master” have changed to accommodate (or not) changing sensibilities towards domestic labour; namely, the shift to “candidate” and “client”, to use Greycoat Lumley’s terminology.

Portions of Lethbridge’s study reminded me of a 2000 Wall to Wall/PBS production, _1900 House_, where a modern-day family goes back to 1900 and becomes for all intents and purposes a lower-middle-class Victorian family. On their budget they can afford one maid-of-all work. Although the maid does take a load off of Joyce’s shoulders (she is the mistress of the home), early into the maid’s employment, Joyce realizes that it is only because of her maid that she herself is free to think, create, rest, or become an activist—whatever she chooses to do. Her guilt about her station and that of her maid’s results in Joyce firing the maid. I remember being intrigued by Joyce’s keen sensitivity to what “domestic service” meant. I remember being intrigued by Joyce's keen sensitivity as to what "domestic service" meant, and also how her decision to fire the maid left the maid out of work and, had it been the Victorian era, possibly on the verge of destitution. Lethbridge introduces this topic as well. She writes about Ethel Mannin, a 1920s-era feminist and socialist who hired domestic help in order to free her for her life’s work. Lethbridge writes that Mannin’s “socialist principles were apparently untroubled by the maid. . . . As Mannin saw it, domestic help was a necessary component of her freedom. ‘It was snobbish; it was class distinction; it was exploitation but it worked,’” Mannin wrote fifty years later (Lethbridge, p. 165).

It is Lethbridge’s attention to these complex themes that draw me to it. Although dense with information, Lethbridge writes in a straight-forward style, using little jargon and “telling a story that is true”, my favorite definition of what history is. I highly recommend this book and am grateful that Lethbridge cared so much about the topic to do a lot of original research and investigation in order to share her findings with readers.


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