Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to Modern Times

Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to Modern Times

4.7 9
by Lucy Lethbridge
     
 

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The vividly told lives of British servants and the upper crust they served.
From the immense staff running a lavish Edwardian estate and the lonely maid-of-all-work cooking in a cramped middle-class house to the poor child doing chores in a slightly less poor household, servants were essential to the British way of life. They were hired not only for their skills

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Overview

The vividly told lives of British servants and the upper crust they served.
From the immense staff running a lavish Edwardian estate and the lonely maid-of-all-work cooking in a cramped middle-class house to the poor child doing chores in a slightly less poor household, servants were essential to the British way of life. They were hired not only for their skills but also to demonstrate the social standing of their employers—even as they were required to tread softly and blend into the background. More than simply the laboring class serving the upper crust—as popular culture would have us believe—they were a diverse group that shaped and witnessed major changes in the modern home, family, and social order.
Spanning over a hundred years, Lucy Lethbridge in this "best type of history" (Literary Review) brings to life through letters and diaries the voices of countless men and women who have been largely ignored by the historical record. She also interviews former and current servants for their recollections of this waning profession.At the fore are the experiences of young girls who slept in damp corners of basements, kitchen maids who were required to stir eggs until the yolks were perfectly centered, and cleaners who had to scrub floors on their hands and knees despite the wide availability of vacuum cleaners. We also meet a lord who solved his inability to open a window by throwing a brick through it and Winston Churchill’s butler who did not think Churchill would know how to dress on his own.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.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Leah Price
Lucy Lethbridge's lively history of British servants…draws on literature, not for evidence of how servants really lived but for clues to their masters' attitudes toward them. She also trawls servants' own memoirs for vivid (sometimes catty) accounts of their own lives and their masters'. Seen from below, the ruling classes come across as petty if not obsessive…Household service provides Lethbridge with a window into almost every corner of social history.
Publishers Weekly
08/19/2013
Lethbridge explores the culture of 20th-century British domestic service workers, the families that employed them, and the practice’s sudden collapse after WWII. She discusses the implications of the upstairs vs. downstairs arrangement in which servants were expected to be “invisible and inaudible,” and bizarre customs dictating everything from calling cards to the ironing of newspapers and shoelaces. Lethbridge also outlines the specific nature of many positions, including the footmen, regarded as effeminate “embodiments of mincing servitude”; butlers, among whom the Astors’ Edwin Lee is most famous; lady’s maids; chauffeurs; and charwomen. In a moment of historical reenactment, she relives Alice Osbourne’s experience as a nursery governess and housekeeper through her diaries, and journalist Elizabeth Banks’s account of going into service undercover. Service work in the British colonies, where employers were desperate to maintain the rituals of home, receives attention, as do the trials of refugees adapting to the British service lifestyle. By WWI many houses either closed or used “women in the traditional manservant roles” as domestic workers left for factories. Though many returned to service after the war, political and social changes following WWII dealt the final blow. Lethbridge comprehensively details an old convention that continues to fascinate the public. (Nov.)
Andrea DenHoed - The New Yorker
“A lively and complicating account of British social history seen through the eyes of the workers who made it possible.”
New York Times Book Review
“Vivid …. Household service provides Lethbridge with a window into almost every corner of social history.”
The New Yorker
“Lethbridge captures the revolution with both sweep and intimacy, and never loses sight of the workers at its heart.”
Matthew Price - Newsday
“Lethbridge writes with sympathy about her subject…. Evenhanded to the end, [she] stresses the inherent dignity of domestic service.”
The Economist
“Absorbing history, much of it in the words of servants… [Lethbridge’s] subject is many-branched and full of pressing issues.”
Financial Times
“Scholarly, thorough and vastly entertaining… [Lethbridge’s] style is elegant, detached and slyly witty and her canvas sprawling and immense…. Richly complex and enjoyable.”
Times Literary Supplement
“Beautifully written, sparkling with insight, and a pleasure to read, Servants is social history at its most humane and perceptive…. In broad terms the world Lethbridge describes is a familiar one, but she nails it all down with the kind of detail that still has the power to astonish, outrage or amuse…. Lethbridge is a dispassionate observer, immune to nostalgia and visions of benign paternalism.”
Guardian (UK)
“In this excellent addition to the history of domestic service in the 20th century, Lucy Lethbridge has swept the existing archive and added new sources of her own. The result is a richly textured account of what it felt like to spend the decades of high modernity on your knees with a dustpan and brush.”
Observer (UK)
“As a panorama, Servants is a great success. Enthusiasts of bonnets and waistcoasts will find Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey all the more enjoyable after reading this nuanced and elegantly written account of the wider context. And in tracing the history of servants throughout the whole of the 20th century, Lethbridge offers a new vantage point from which to reassess British social history.”
Economist
“Absorbing history, much of it in the words of servants…[Lethbridge’s] subject is many-branched and full of pressing issues.”
Sue Gaisford - Financial Times
“Thorough and vastly entertaining…[Lethbridge’s] style is elegant, detached and slyly witty…Richly complex and enjoyable.”
Paul Addison - Times Literary Supplement
“Beautifully written, sparkling with insight, and a pleasure to read, Servants is social history at its most humane and perceptive.”
Amanda Foreman
“Move over Downton Abbey, Lucy Lethbridge portrays life below stairs as it really was. Absorbing, highly entertaining, and impeccably researched, Servants is so much fun to read that it’s practically a guilty pleasure.”
Hugh Brewster
“Unlike the cozy downstairs world of Downton Abbey, most of those for whom the bell-pulls tolled in great British houses led existences of ceaseless drudgery and petty humiliation. Yet here Lucy Lethbridge re-creates the lives of everyone from butlers and housekeepers to 'tweenies' and 'skivvies' in a way that never fails to fascinate. With meticulous research and engaging prose she evokes a world that the plutocrats of America’s Gilded Age tried hard to emulate.”
Deborah Davis
“Lucy Lethbridge turns servants into stars, offering a colorful and compelling social history about the men, women, and children whose occupation rendered them invisible. Buoyed by substantial research, engaging anecdotes, and a lively narrative, the book places generations of overlooked domestics center stage, where, finally, they receive the attention they have always deserved.”
Library Journal
09/01/2013
One of the most striking anecdotes in UK journalist Lethbridge's history of English domestic service over the last two centuries concerns a social researcher posing as a scullery maid in a fancy London house in the 1930s. When her invalid employer requested a milk drink and digestive biscuit, the task of preparing and delivering this simple fare turned out to involve the efforts of no less than eight servants, including the cook, footman, butler, and lady's maid. It's a scene that encapsulates the twofold nature of this book's appeal, for while it provides many such entertaining and eyebrow-raising episodes, its greatest strength is the author's clear-eyed exploration of the complex and shifting mind-set surrounding housework and domestic service in the country as a whole. Lethbridge's long-range view of English servants might drift a little in the early chapters, but, as the years roll on, she provides a thorough look at how this nostalgically retained tradition began to break down against the forces of financial instability, technological progress, and the changing attitudes of successive generations. VERDICT Studies and memoirs of life in service are currently thick on the ground, but the panoramic view of the subject and Lethbridge's engaging style and sharp observations make this book a valuable addition to the crowd. [See Prepub Alert, 5/13/13.]—Kathleen McCallister, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia
Kirkus Reviews
2013-09-28
A surprisingly substantive, elucidating social study of the British class system. London journalist Lethbridge emphasizes numerous important facets of the master-servant relationship that kept the great houses of Britain running smoothly until their apogee in the Edwardian era: namely, that the relationship represented by its orderliness and rigidity the very symbol of English imperialism. Indeed, even the middle classes enriched by the Industrial Revolution employed their coterie of servants, underscoring the master-servant bond as what judge Sir William Blackstone termed in 1765 the "first of the three ‘great relationships of private life' " (the others being spousal and filial). Like the caste system of India, to which the British system glommed effortlessly, the army of domestic servants in England was highly stratified, divided into "niche skills." The pay was minimal, but the estate offered safety, room and board. The jobs were divided between indoor and outdoor servants and between those at the top, such as the butler and housekeeper, and those at the bottom, the charwoman and scullery maid. They were further delineated by height and appearance (the taller ones received higher-paying, front-of-the-house jobs). The number of people working as domestic servants rivaled the number of agricultural workers up until the turn of the century, and yet this huge body of workers was "largely excluded from the industrial unrest that rocked the first ten years of the 20th century…scorned by their working-class peers as the most despised representatives of class betrayal." Considered flunkies, "scivvies" and toadies by the urban factory workers, the career domestics tended to be conservative in their views, nostalgic even for the "sacred trust" established between patron and servant. The author explores how the forces of war, modern technology and feminist consciousness eventually helped blow the relationship apart. Employing numerous real-house and literary examples, Lethbridge lends poignancy to the master-servant dynamic.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393241099
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
11/18/2013
Pages:
400
Sales rank:
515,248
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.50(d)

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