Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times is history at its best: informative and well written, lively and vivid. It’s gritty without sensationalism.
I’m rather obsessed with 19th century English literature and in particular the domestic lives of people, rich and poor, in 19th C Britain. So I’ve already read numerous books about the life of servants — including the classic Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861, which I recommend to anyone interested in this subject.
Servants: A Downstairs History is particularly interesting because it carries on to the present day and provides insights into our relationship with domestic workers today.
Much of the details are taken from letters, memoirs and diaries of servants so you get a genuine insight into daily life, unlike other similar books I’ve read where the source material is mainly books written by wealthy and/or educated people observing the laboring classes. I wish it had been twice the length.
Some thought-provoking insights from the book focus on the role of servants in female emancipation.
Lethbridge describes how the growth of the middle classes and the disappearance of the “servant class”, after the first and second world wars, paradoxically gave rise to an increase in the demand for general cleaners in middle class households, allowing the woman of the house time and freedom for more intellectual pursuits. So one group of women improve their lives at the expense of another. Just like today.
She also highlights the uneasy relationship between middle class women and their cleaners, an uncomfortable mix of guilt, gratitude, respect, intimacy, distance and resentment, which arose mid 20th Century and is still often the pattern today.
It makes for some uncomfortable reading if you employ a cleaner in your home.
You might also like:
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Make sure you get the 1200-page unabridged version. The abridged version, at some 600 pages, is only the recipes, which are the least interesting part of this tome.