A Downstairs History of Britain From the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times
Lethbridge, Lucy (Book - 2013)
Average Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Item Details

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.
Authors: Lethbridge, Lucy
Title: Servants
a downstairs history of Britain from the nineteenth century to modern times
Publisher: New York :, W. W. Norton & Company,, c2013.
Edition: First American Edition.
Characteristics: xi 385 p. :,ill. ;,24 cm
Content Type: text
Media Type: unmediated
Carrier Type: volume
Notes: Originally published under the title: Servants : a downstairs view of twentieth-century Britain.
Contents: Preface
The symbolic pantomime
"A sort of silence and embarrassment"
The dainty life
"A seat in the hall"
Centralising the egg yolks
Popinjays and mob caps
The desire for perfection
"Some poor girl's got to go up and down, up and down
The sacred trust
The ideal village
"Silent, obsequious and omnipresent"
Bowing and scraping
The age of ambivalence
Out of a cage
"Don't think your life will be any different to mine"
"It was exploitation but it worked"
"Tall, strong, healthy and keen to work"
The mechanical maid
Outer show and inner life
A vast machine that has forgotten how to stop working
Bachelor establishments are notoriously comfortable
The question of the inner life
"Do they really drink out of their saucers?'
"Of alien origin"
A new jerusalem
A new and useful life
The housewife militant
"The change : it must have been terrible for them"
The shape of things to come
"We don't want them days again'
"We've moved to the front"
"I'd never done what i liked
never in all my life"
"We like it because the past is not so worrying as the news"
Summary: 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.
Local Note: 15 16 17 18 35 53 57 60 61 69 71 74 80 118 133 148 149 151 152 198 210 211 216 231 242 244 250 263 264
Master record encoding level change - Master record variable field(s) change: 100, 505, 650, 720 WorldCat Holdings
ISBN: 0393241092
Statement of Responsibility: Lucy Lethbridge
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references (p. [327]-368) and index.
Subject Headings: Great Britain Social conditions 20th century. Social classes Great Britain History 20th century. Household employees Great Britain Attitudes. Household employees Great Britain History 20th century.
Topical Term: Social classes
Household employees
Household employees
LCCN: 2013028069
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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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app03 Version Arkelstorp Last updated 2014/10/22 16:24