Downton Abbey and the Servant Question
British baby-boomers used to be puzzled by books written in or about eras before 1939, as people in them, and in old Brit movies shown on television, so often had servants. They might accept the presence of domestic help in pre-20th century literature as ancient social history, but a vintage detective story that didn’t feel archaic because it had cars and planes, yet in which the hero had a butler or valet, and the police inspector interviewed, and patronised, the housemaid who had discovered the corpse was odd, even disturbing.
Of course, through the 1950s there remained a few upper-middle-class households (and fictional characters) with staff: usually a cook/housekeeper (Ian Fleming originally issued James Bond with such a treasure) and maybe other retainers. And there was the royal family, with nannies and even footmen in their preserved universe. But the old employment structure of a large town or country house was mysterious to post-war generations in the UK. Many big urban houses had been subdivided after the war; many large country houses were never fully reclaimed after wartime requisitioning, or were sold or demolished, and prize specimens were handed over to the National Trust (NT) charity, and by the 1960s were opened to the public, showing rooms with impressive furnishings. The few visitors admired the embroidered bell-pulls in the drawing room, but the bells they had rung in the old service quarters went unconsidered.
Working-class boomers could at least question their elders, as most such families mustered at least one woman who had been in service under the ancien régime. The revolution had come with female conscription in the second world war, summarised by Vogue in 1942: “Mrs T, youngish at 60, parted with her butler quite early in the conflict: then, in rapid succession, she sped her departing cook into the WAAF [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force], her housemaid to the WRNS [Women’s Royal Naval Service], and encouraged the timid parlour maid into a munitions factory in the nearest town”; after which she patriotically shifted for herself. (Vogue’s plea for a post-war, female, “national domestic service corps” sounded absurd, let alone wrong, by the time of the 1945 Labour election triumph.)
Shop Assistant or Maid
The first world war, a generation before, had also recruited young women for paid or volunteer non-domestic work for the duration. But after that, female employment in industry never recovered from the slump of the early 1920s, so girls went back into service, if never quite in their previous numbers, while in non-industrial areas the choice for inadequately educated girls leaving school in their early teens was a job as a shop assistant — hard to come by, almost aspirational — or domestic service.
That was the fate of Margaret Powell, the prime witness of British servitude, born in 1907. She was a bright child from a destitute family, sent out to drudge at 15 in 1922: she began with the roughest chores and advanced through households until, at the time of her marriage to the local milkman which she had arranged secretly, she was a cook with an “enormous sense of inferiority and the ability to cook a seven-course dinner.” Thereafter, her marital duties were to be a housewife, while her sons had the education she had been denied. To catch up with them, she studied at night school, and, as therapy, wrote a short memoir, Below Stairs.
It was finally published in 1968, for a readership divided between those who recalled its world with love or hate, and boomers for whom it was raw testimony out of what seemed like the dark ages. “We always called them ‘Them’,” Powell wrote of the upstairs folk; “‘Them’ was the enemy … and to ‘Them’ servants were a race apart, a necessary evil.” “Them” might not deign to call the servants by their names. One employer thought “Margaret” too high-flown for a maid, and decided Powell ought to be the lowlier “Elsie” instead.
Powell did not whinge much about the austerities imposed on live-in servants (coarse food and not enough of it, spartan quarters) or the hard manual labour on dirty, coal-fuelled premises. Her anger, which roils out of the book, was for the upper orders’ depersonalisation of those who toiled for them: “Servants were not real people with minds and feelings. They were possessions.” Not even labourers but functions, utilities, deliberately deprived of all hope of private lives: female menials were forbidden social contact with their male peers to block their marital chances and also deny them autonomous adult identities; they must live only vicariously, through their employers.
When the book was reissued in 2011, reviewers were surprised that Powell’s sense of injustice had not led her to socialism. They didn’t understand that the intimate yet personally isolated nature of service precluded much solidarity, let alone insurrection: who choruses the Internationale on the back stairs while slopping out chamber pots? Even the chateau staff in Jean Renoir’s very political 1939 film La Règle du Jeu — which, because it is French, has been underappreciated as a pioneer masterpiece of the service genre — are apolitical (and worse snobs than their masters). Being French, however, their food is far superior to Powell’s rations of haddock and tapioca.
The actors Jean March and Eileen Atkins were born in the 1930s to mothers who had been in service in Powell’s era. They had played many a maid in their early stage careers and resented the way that television was following theatre in showing servants as mere period decor, particularly in the 1967 BBC success The Forsyte Saga. At the time Below Stairs was published, they had an idea for a television comedy, Behind the Green Baize Door, in which (as in Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, whose protagonists are the least important characters from Hamlet), life upstairs would be only the background to the misadventures of two Victorian housemaids. By the time of the show’s delayed transmission as Upstairs, Downstairs on the ITV network in 1971, their comedy about class had been transformed into serious, if soapy, drama by the production company, which wanted to sell it on glamour and — sometimes cross-class — sex. Its characters became parallel “families” in a house in Eaton Place, Belgravia, London (where households remained wealthy enough post-1918 to maintain a substantial male and female staff): the owners and their servants, including a housemaid played by Marsh (Atkins was unavailable).
Upstairs, Downstairs lasted five seasons, and spanned 1903 to 1930. Its toffs were borrowed from the middlebrow fiction of the early 20th century, but the servants had to be freshly invented, since there were few literary precedents and the working class had been more sympathetically and subtly treated on cinema screens since the 1960s. Its approach was to stress downstairs skills, especially those of the cook, Mrs Bridges. This was perfect retro timing. Drawing-room bric-à-brac had been collected for decades, but a taste for relics from big old kitchens, and dressers to display them on, was spreading among young design and media professionals nostalgic for a world they had never known. Their mothers, sent back to servantless accommodation after the war, had had an uncomfortable relationship with labour-saving kitchenettes, but this next generation made simulated servants’ kitchens the heart of their homes. Those who couldn’t afford real antiques bought copies soon on sale everywhere, including NT gift shops, for the NT’s membership, as it expanded, was connecting more with the descendants of those who had been in service rather those who had been served. NT house kitchens were opened and became major visitor draws.
Upstairs, Downstairs was the first, and best, example of what the historian Lucy Delap described in her 2011 book Knowing Their Place about domestic service in Britain “as a foundational narrative among the stories people tell about the last century and its changes”. It also pioneered the irritating technique of pegging plots on a timeline slung across the period of maximum change before and after the first world war, when the Titanic, the Somme and the influenza epidemic could conveniently provoke or resolve stories. But the series was revelatory to those with no memory or understanding of service of any kind: even the words “service sector” didn’t arrive in the UK economy until late in the 1980s. In the 1970s most British boomers had never eaten out or stayed in a hotel, and part of the appeal of the new package foreign holidays was the novelty of personal service — porter, room maid, waiter — brokered by tour representatives to prevent embarrassment.
The Upstairs, Downstairs production company then developed a series for the BBC, The Duchess of Duke Street, which over seasons in 1976 and 1977 elevated its heroine from misery in the scullery in 1900 to triumph in 1920 as “queen of cooks”, and owner of a hotel in London’s West End. It was faintly based on a real working-class hotelier and was an upwardly mobile career story; the heroine’s upper-class lover admired her courage as well as her culinary abilities. The self-made, rise-in-the-world narrative so suited the imminent Thatcher era that it became the preferred TV fictional approach to the popular past, especially in the dramatisations of the bestsellers of Catherine Cookson, who had written her own way up from poverty in the laundry to wealth enough to endow university departments. Curiosity about historical cooking, cleaning and gardening also developed, but into a separate, factual TV genre that stressed processes rather than class, and those processes also filled out the background of classic novel dramatisations. Butlers returned to being supernumeraries, but were given more exact tasks to simulate.
You Rang, Sir?
Kazuo Ishiguro, Japanese but reared in Britain, chose a butler as the central character of his 1989 novel The Remains of the Day precisely because the myth of the butler — “You rang, sir?” — was among the “things that are very exotic to me about Englishness”, and also because “the butler is a good metaphor for the relationship of very ordinary, small people to power.” His novel was a commentary on wasted lives (its dutiful butler never gets to express the outrage of Beaumarchais’s Figaro, forced to expend his considerable talents as a fixer for his dim, immoral master), and on un-meritocratic privilege that demanded emotional as well as economic servitude: both aspects were important to James Ivory’s 1993 film adaptation.
The US director Robert Altman was also intrigued by the butler’s traditional role in country house murder mysteries, although in his 2001 film Gosford Park, the butler didn’t do it. (Kill the master of the house, that is. The housekeeper did. And a valet. Almost everybody else wanted to.) Altman had seen Upstairs, Downstairs, presented on the US Public Service Broadcasting channel more as social history than popular fiction, and responded to its ensemble cast’s overlap with his own densely-populated films. He began with the idea of solving a murder only through such information as reached the servants’ quarters, then decided the death should be retribution for the master’s abuses of working-class women. Upstairs dwellers are shown as drones, downstairs as workers, their every polish of a fish fork or whisk of an egg vetted on set by four aged experts who had begun their own service in the 1930s period of the film.
Altman hired a British writer, Julian Fellowes, because he had been advised that Fellowes, whose wife was lady-in-waiting to a second-rank royal, was an expert on class. Gosford’s plot is melodrama and its social history off-key, but Altman’s images are haunting: wistful servants in the penumbra beyond half-open doors listen to the songs played by the composer Ivor Novello, whose music bores those upstairs; during “The Lovely Land of Might Have Been”, those downstairs ache with yearning for the upstairs life to which they will never have access. Fellowes assured Altman that being a servant had been just a job but Altman disagreed since throughout his life he had watched first a black, then a Hispanic, servant class run oversized houses and underpin privileged lives in the US, and the household in his 1978 film A Wedding Depends on Hired Help.
Fellowes had appeared in The Duchess of Duke Street, although his acting career at the time was so unrewarding that he wrote low-grade romantic novels under a female pen name to raise cash. He was a boomer, too, though born to a high Tory background that he did not reject, which made him a freakish thespian in the 1970s, when leftwing ideals were the theatrical norm. He escaped to Hollywood, but couldn’t even secure a cameo role as a butler in the naff series Fantasy Island, and returned home to character actor jobs, then scripted adaptations of novels for BBC children’s television, including Little Lord Fauntleroy. After his 2002 Oscar for Gosford Park, his subsequent novels were unkindly reviewed in the UK — described as like being stuck at a party with a snobbish bore — while in the US he was curtseyed to as an arbiter of decor and decorum, especially after he was made a life peer (Baron Fellowes of West Stafford) in 2011, as an endorsement from coalition Tories. Gareth Neame, head of a UK company co-producing series with US TV channels, proposed to Fellowes the idea that became Downton Abbey, and Maggie Smith was cast as the central, censorious dowager, as she had been in Gosford Park.
Back in Time
Fellowes moved Downton back in time from Gosford, to start with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912; the second series had the Great War as background, and this winter’s third series advances into the 1920s. Downton is meant to be a Yorkshire seat but is played by Highclere Castle in Hampshire, an excessively stately home designed in the 1840s by Charles Barry, also responsible for the familiar silhouette of the Houses of Parliament.
Such grand houses were historically major rural employers, as much of local men for estate tasks as of domestic staff, and most of their employees had a strong sense of connection to the places, their forebears having worked there for generations. Vita Sackville-West, who (rather like the Downton plot) was disinherited from the great house of Knole by laws of male primogeniture, named and thanked servants of previous centuries in her biography of Knole, for sustaining its identity as well as its buildings over centuries. Although the very last generation of locally recruited servants, such as the gardener at a Suffolk house who shared his memories with Ronald Blythe (in the documentary history,Akenfield, published 1969) were almost as bitter as Margaret Powell. He told Blythe “Lordship and Ladyship were old”, and he felt sorry for them, as they were as helpless as children without the constant attention of their servants. Yet the relationship “was obviously wrong … I always had to give more than was necessary. I couldn’t resist it. It was exciting somehow. But when I got home I would be angry with myself … I would feel strange inside, pitying and hating at the same time.”
Downton servants, though, are presented more as modern employees, especially when disgruntled or malevolent, as if Fellowes had based their attitudes on those in the service sector in a post-industrial economy, where jobs in tourism, catering and beauty have borrowed only superficial aspects of the personal obligations of downstairs. (A hairdresser can’t be equated with a live-in lady’s maid: limited deference can be switched off at the end of the modern working day.) Fellowes also invites viewers to share his own obsessions with the material details of an imagined past aristocratic life, which makes his work very much like the popular “silver fork” genre novels written in the 1820s and 1830s, but set in the earlier era of Regency England: they were prodigiously popular among the new, aspiring middle classes, especially their womenfolk, wanting information on how things were done “correctly”. Fellowes shares with the young Benjamin Disraeli — whose first unsure success was as a silver fork author — the idea of the precise placement of cutlery on a dining table, and other similar rituals, as a measure of social assurance. But unlike Disraeli, Fellowes will probably not to go on to write Sybil: or The Two Nations, Dizzy’s 1845 political novel about the inequality, and therefore inhumanity, of industrial Lancashire. The book became a manifesto for the “Young England” idealists in the Conservative party of the time, and Disraeli was eventually prime minister.
Fellowes does share the mid-19th century Tory fantasy that social harmony comes from devotion freely offered by lower-order servitors to their (wealthy) social betters, with both classes joined in love of a greater abstraction: for Young Englanders, Queen Victoria and her empire; for Fellowes, the continuation of Downton — at least until the rumoured high cost and tricky logistics of Highclere (upstairs is filmed there; downstairs is entirely a studio set) force him to dramatise the family’s departure from its ancient seat. And his next project? Fellowes recently agreed to write a series for the NBC television network in the US, fictionalising the grandest families of America’s gilded age in the 1870s, its first era of extreme inequality, although the lives of railroad robber barons and their housemaids and footmen in the faux-chateaux of Newport, Rhode Island, may lack the tasteful cachet of Downtown. The cutlery, however, will be faultless.
Veronica Horwell is a writer and journalist.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.