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Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times 1st Edition

4.0 out of 5 stars 77 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393241099
ISBN-10: 0393241092
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)

From Booklist

The popularity of Downton Abbey has rekindled interest in all things British, especially the parallel lives of the privileged and those who served them. Lethbridge capitalizes on the trend by providing a comprehensive overview of domestic service from the late nineteenth century through modern times. As the twentieth century evolved, so did practical and social attitudes toward the entire upstairs/downstairs dynamic. In addition to relating a treasure trove of fascinating—and often dismaying—stories about the haves and have-nots who occupied the same households, she also analyzes how the disruption of archaic social, political, and economic systems by two world wars led to a seismic shift in values and practical realities, dealing a long-overdue deathblow to a moribund profession . --Margaret Flanagan

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (November 18, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393241092
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393241099
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #376,118 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I would have given this book 5 stars but for the fact that it is not well-suited to Kindle. The book itself is a terrific read. It is well-researched & -written, full of lively anecdotes, & it gives the reader a rich insight into the employer (more accurately, master/mistress)-servant relationships & class divisions of a Victorian era that actually lasted well into the 20th century. Imagine being a young teenager having your hands forced into boiling water so that you'd be better able to tolerate the requirements of doing the family's laundry, or having to turn your face to the wall if your master/mistress happened to enter the room while you were cleaning it, so that they could pretend you weren't really there. It appears that at least some employers adored their servants, even calling out for them from their own deathbeds ("Put your arms around me, Margery!"), but those same employers rarely provided any kind of care for their servants when the latter became ill or old, although they nevertheless fought fiercely against what is now the National Health Service. After reading "Servants," you'll be hard put to see "Downton Abbey" & "Upstairs, Downstairs" as much different from "Gone With the Wind."

However, I was frustrated by the fact that, although the Kindle version includes an "Index," the index references have no page numbers, nor can the reader use footnote numbers or asterisks to find the relevant endnotes. You can use the pad to highlight a word or phrase in the Index & find the relevant pages, but you have to be really careful how you go about it. If I had to do this again, I'd order the hard copy.
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Format: Kindle Edition
As a fan of PBS Masterpiece Theater British series of “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs”, (written by the progeny of a maid and a footman), I was intrigued by the title of this 385 pages book.
The book is well organized and flows smoothly, but it is a labored reading; meaning that the density of the material precludes reading through it in one or two sittings, unless of course one was a member of the leisure “upstairs” class without anything else to attend to.

Lethbridge covers about a century of English society, from the late 19th century through the 1960’s. It is a composite of anecdotes, vignettes and tales culled from the letters and diaries of mostly the servant population, contrasted with a few from their employers. The author deftly weaves the stories into a tapestry of an anachronistic life-style, oddly pined for today by some in Britain.

In early 20th century Britain, over one million women worked as servants, in vast country estates, city mansions, coach houses and townhomes. Having servants was a status symbol, even when the employer could not afford it.

Examples of the aristocracy’s dependence on servants to maintain their pompous lifestyle and the “symbolic pantomime” of the domestics, are described throughout in sometimes in humorous but mostly in realistic wretched images.
The Duke of Portland employed 90 in-house servants, at Welbeck, to satisfy his caprices, such as his demand that “a chicken be turning on a spit 24 hours a day, in case he felt peckish.” The ten upper servants who supervised the entire staff had their own under-servants.
The Duke of Bedford expected all his parlourmaids to be 5’10” or taller.
At Belvoir, the Duke of Rutland’s palace, one man was employed to just bang the mealtime gong.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
"Servants" is a beautifully documented account of the role of serving people in England from the 19th century to the present. Many of we Americans can only summon visions of exquisitely run country homes with well respected staff or the "Little Princess" reduced to scullery and living in hunger and cold in the dark attic. While both extremes existed, in fact a middle ground did exist. Most fascinating to me was the author's juxtaposition of the view of serving person with that of the employer. As she wrily notes, "all sorts of desires become elevated to necessities when there is someone else to do the hard labour of realising them for you." Even the English home was shaped by deep dependence on servants. Even when available, electric appliances and central heating were not added until the supply of willing employees in fact dried up.

In each era, the book explores the range of domestic jobs available. While the grand houses did in fact provide a huge number of arcane and specific jobs, most servants worked as "dog's bodies" in small homes in which each servant had a huge amount of work to complete. The individual anecdotes bring the writing to life. And to round this work off, Lethbridge has included society attitudes, government regulation, and newspaper ads and columns as sources. I found this to be a well rounded treatment of the often romanticized, and seldom missed by the servant, age of servants.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I have to admit I prefer novels to factual books. This one, however, has grabbed me! Lethbridge is a fine writer and the book's contents are fascinating.

Along with debunking the common notions of downstairs help, it also relates the history and attitude of labor saving house hold devices. Don't want to give the maids a chance for idleness and sloth and keeping everything the same as it has always been. This includes central heating, electricity, or those new-fangled gas lights. Views and attitudes by the elite and those upstarts, the middle class, are fascinating. Also goes into the slow emancipation of women, rights for workers, and many other areas of this era as seen by the working class and the high mucky-mucks.

As other readers have observed it is very hard to refer to the abundant footnotes in the Kindle addition. I can't demote it to a lower rating because the subject matter and writing are excellent.

I also appreciate the many unfamiliar words that are used. I love vocabulary building reads. In that area the built in dictionary is wonderful.

If you are interested in a great book about how it REALLY was this is a great read.
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