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

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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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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.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    Petra-X Off having adventures

    This book is about the change from the immense number of staff required to run a huge estate and to show the status of their employers down to the big, bright kitchens of today where we all do our own housework or have a 'treasure' once a week. However, there are still the estates run on the old style with servants whose presence is never acknowledged until something is required from them. Buckingham Palace for one. There are many countries in the world which have not reached this enlightened st This book is about the change from the immense number of staff required to run a huge estate and to show the status of their employers down to the big, bright kitchens of today where we all do our own housework or have a 'treasure' once a week. However, there are still the estates run on the old style with servants whose presence is never acknowledged until something is required from them. Buckingham Palace for one. There are many countries in the world which have not reached this enlightened state where the wealthy and even not so well off have servants that are just one step up from slaves. The status was shown in really peculiar ways. Tea and cakes are required in the lady's bedroom. So her lady's maid tells the footman, who goes to the kitchen and tells the cook who has a kitchen maid lay out the tray and make the tea and brings it to the footman who carries it to the lady's maid who takes it to the lady herself. In a really large house there may be other intermediaries (and presumably after all that palaver the tea was cold). The status of employers was also shown by their utter inability to do anything at all for themselves. One lord, unable to find a servant awake in the night, didn't know how to open a window, so he threw a piece of furniture through it. Winston Churchill's valet, John Gibson, said that he was quite unable to dress himself without assistance, "He sat there like a dummy and you dressed him". Of course, most households had only one or two servants. They had no money but were determined to look as middle-class as possible and not dirty their hands. (Men had actually done all the housework until into the 18th century when it had changed to being women's work). Poor, put-upon women who had to do everything and had no choice of employment. The two world wars were the great levelers. They gave women employment in manufacturing, offices, services and retail previously done by the men who were away fighting. Although between the wars many women went back into service and men reclaimed their "rightful" positions, a larger number of women did not. The second world war killed the servant trade completely. Think of those horrendous adverts showing subservient women in pretty dresses drooling over their new vacuum cleaner or cooking in the kitchen with a frilly apron on as their husband stood by with a drink in his hand, women did not want to do other people's housework. They didn't want to be despised by their peers, regarded as almost sub-human by their employers (Virginia Woolf didn't think women of the serving class were born with the intelligence and sensibilities of her class. She was such a hypocrite that woman). What they wanted was reasonable hours and pay and a home of their own. It didn't quite end though, I grew up with a live-in housekeeper. She had her own apartment, entrance, bathroom and balcony so she wasn't treated like servants of long ago. She didn't like me from the time I was a young child, she resented doing anything for a girl and as long as I lived at home she was at pains to show it. Actually she had a really good life when my brother and I left home. She had very little to do. My mother was at work doing market research, my father was at work, and all the housekeeper had to do was look after them, bake a cake maybe, do a little gardening (we had a gardener once a week), some knitting and watch the soaps in the afternoon or perhaps go to town and see a film. The positions had been reversed, the lady of leisure was now the servant. The book is a very detailed sociological survey of the changing times and attitudes towards not just servants but to different classes. No one any longer thinks the upper class is better than they are, just richer! Prince William married the daughter of parents who run an online party-supply company. Kate's mother was born in a council house and one day she will be the Queen Mother. Times have really changed!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Mel Campbell

    Domesticity is such a fraught space. Women have long been told that they should build their identities around home-making, and so the people who can afford to outsource their domestic labour are demonised as lazy and uncaring, and the servants who actually make homes are robbed of the dignity and purpose that our culture associates with work because the credit for that work goes to their employers. And while we like to think that these relationships and economies are quintessential to some contem Domesticity is such a fraught space. Women have long been told that they should build their identities around home-making, and so the people who can afford to outsource their domestic labour are demonised as lazy and uncaring, and the servants who actually make homes are robbed of the dignity and purpose that our culture associates with work because the credit for that work goes to their employers. And while we like to think that these relationships and economies are quintessential to some contemporary zeitgeist, what I found most fascinating about Lethbridge's book is the realisation that all this is not new. It's as much a book about the evolution of domestic life, home design and technology as about the people who make homes so nice for their employers, but whose presence (or absence) continues to be a source of angst. My ideas of English domestic service and the class who employed servants have come from fiction, especially Downton Abbey and Gosford Park, with a soupçon of Jeeves and Wooster, The Remains of the Day and The Stranger's Child . So I was surprised to learn from this book that employing servants was a key indicator of status and respectability across all British classes. It wasn't just for lords and ladies on country estates; poor people would scrimp in all sorts of ways but would still maintain at least one servant (even if it was just a 12-year-old maid-of-all-work), and even the poorest of the poor still outsourced tasks like laundry and childcare. Lethbridge's decision to frame the book in the 20th century – the decline of traditional English service – makes it more focused and more emotionally charged. Adam Nicolson's Gentry: Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Class also charts the decline of a class; and it was interesting to read about servants immediately after having read about their employers. But my overriding emotion when reading this narrative of entropy is nostalgic melancholy. It's strange, since I have no personal stake in the fate of the British class system (except for a vague cultural heritage of that system). But both the servants and employers whose voices Lethbridge quotes so vividly also tend to share my feeling that the heyday of service was the Edwardian era, when everyone knew his or her hierarchical place and there was a place for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest. I really enjoyed the parts of the book that described in detail the labour undertaken by servants and the arcane rules of their work: yes, it was dreadfully hard, thankless and pedantic, but the skills were prodigious and the results were beautiful. I found myself yearning to live in a serviced home, where my clothes were beautifully kept, the rooms always spotlessly clean and filled with fresh flowers, and delicious meals cooked and cleared away. But thanks to this book I recognise the indulgence of rendering invisible the people who enable such a pampered lifestyle. Housework is not edifying or fulfilling in the slightest. But as Lethbridge documents, employers fatuously couched hard labour as morally necessary for the servant class, and labour-saving devices and methods were adopted grudgingly late in England. And as the servant workforce dwindled in the 20th century and housewives had to do the work themselves, they too were sold the virtues of domestic labour. Now we can see that so much of what servants were made to do was not even useful, but was often unnecessarily elaborate busywork intended as a display of economic and cultural power, and an exercise of that power through human bodily capabilities. Footmen and parlourmaids were perhaps the clearest illustration of this power, as they were valued primarily for their appearance. I was fascinated by the complex and ambivalent attitudes of servants themselves to their places in this system, their attempts to be socially mobile within it, and the ways in which they responded when the system began to break down and change. Service has oscillated between being a respectable, desirable career and a despised form of servitude. The power dynamic has shifted within the employer/servant relationship, and the labour movement struggled to include servants in its campaigns for better workplace conditions. Lethbridge is also quite astute in showing how service has always relied on immigrant labour, from colonial retainers through to the employment of WWII refugees and contemporary migrant workers. Yet there's an essential attractiveness to deferential British service that remains culturally alluring, so that Chinese and Russian tycoons now specifically want English butlers and nannies. I recommend this book highly to anyone who wants to understand today's service and 'assistant' economy, as well as the complex attitudes of people who undertake this sort of work. It's not an explicitly political book, but it's one that tackles socioeconomic inequality in an environment that's rarely examined because it's so intimate, and its workers so rarely speak out because their profession demands deference and discretion.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Anima

    “For many of those American heiresses who did marry into the aristocracy it was often their spouses’ practical incompetence – being stumped by the simplest of daily tasks – that proved most perplexing to their new brides. When sitting beside a dwindling fire, a poker at their feet, it was usual to ring for a footman to poke the fire using the very same poker. Yet at the same time, they often went to great lengths rarely to encounter most of those who did the work for them, never to brush up agai “For many of those American heiresses who did marry into the aristocracy it was often their spouses’ practical incompetence – being stumped by the simplest of daily tasks – that proved most perplexing to their new brides. When sitting beside a dwindling fire, a poker at their feet, it was usual to ring for a footman to poke the fire using the very same poker. Yet at the same time, they often went to great lengths rarely to encounter most of those who did the work for them, never to brush up against the spectacle of manual labour itself. ‘If someone walked into the room and all they wanted was a handkerchief you had to stop whatever you were doing and walk out until such time as they did this,’ remembered an Edwardian maidservant.” “In 1900 domestic service was the single largest occupation in Edwardian Britain: of the four million women in the British workforce, a million and a half worked as servants, a majority of them as single-handed maids in small households. Hardly surprising then that the keeping of servants was not necessarily considered an indication of wealth: for many families it was so unthinkable to be without servants that their presence was almost overlooked.....Yet, despite their constituting the largest working group, the records on servants are often hazy, their lives rendered indistinct. Servants were simultaneously visible, their presence a sign of status, and invisible, the details of their individual experience subsumed into that of their employers; and it was employers who controlled the historical record.” “The Duties of Servants in 1890 stressed that ‘only a girl possessed of a very attractive appearance, tall rather than short, smart in her dress and deferential in her manners should undertake the duty’ of opening the door....a parlourmaid must have long arms in order to reach things on the table, and a housemaid should also be tall, else how can she put the linen away on the top shelves and wash the looking-glasses in the drawing room?.... It was hardly surprising that most servants, some of them formerly of the orphanage or the workhouse, poorly fed and many barely pubescent, fell far short of the ideal height requirement for front-of-house work. The extent to which Britain’s poor were stunted by disease and malnourishment was made fully apparent after the outbreak of the Second Boer War, when recruiting offices reported that a majority of working-class recruits were unfit for active service, their diet consisting for the most part of little more than the ‘staples’ of bread, dripping and tea; leftovers, sold off cheap, constituted rare treats for the poorest, including bruised fruit, broken biscuits and offcuts of meat.“

  4. 5 out of 5

    JimZ

    This was a very interesting read and well worth the effort. My quibbles are so minor I think I will not even mention them. 😊 Well, actually the author used words I had to look up in the dictionary (the nerve of her!): sartorial; maundering; mordant; eponymous (I have come across this numerous times, and I look it up, but the word goes in one cerebral hemisphere and out the other); profligacy (same comment); invidious; solecism; quiddities; munificent. This was a nonfiction book on the lives of se This was a very interesting read and well worth the effort. My quibbles are so minor I think I will not even mention them. 😊 Well, actually the author used words I had to look up in the dictionary (the nerve of her!): sartorial; maundering; mordant; eponymous (I have come across this numerous times, and I look it up, but the word goes in one cerebral hemisphere and out the other); profligacy (same comment); invidious; solecism; quiddities; munificent. This was a nonfiction book on the lives of servants, maids, gardeners, butlers, valets, and a cast of other characters who worked in the houses of rich folk (mainly in England) during the Edwardian era (circa 1890) to the 1950s or thereabouts. I saw the television series Downton Abbey and have heard not to believe for a minute that that was the way servants were treated back in the day. After reading this book (325 pp) I now have a pretty good idea of how servants were treated, with the norm being that it was a fairly brutal and/or miserable life. Some places that I bookmarked for one reason or another to give you a flavor for what things you might find in the book (there’s a lot of good reading!): • Eels, always popular in Edwardian dishes, had to be skinned alive. Miss Ellery, who had been both kitchen-maid and cook, was regularly skinning eels in the 1930s: ‘Well, they was fresh. You used to put your hands in plenty of salt. And catch hold the top, put it on the top of sort of a cooking table, and you have a two-pronged fork and stab it in, and then hit it down and pull it right through.’ • Superior homes disdained the sealed, wrapped, frozen and canned: game was only considered ready for eating when it had been hung till it was high and crawling with maggots. Rabbits, delivered to the house whole, had to be skinned, have their heads chopped off with a cleaver, their eyes gouged out and the brains removed with a large spoon. • The servant in India conducted his work with a commitment that even in Britain would have been hard to command. The duties, for example, of the khitmagar, or bearer, might include standing behind his master’s chair at mealtimes and stirring his tea, cutting his meat–everything short of actually eating the food for him. • The introduction of technology in most British homes (JimZ, circa 1924) was therefore precipitated by the servant shortage, not by the usefulness in itself of labor-saving gadgetry. Working-class girls were themselves often nonplussed in the presence of newfangled plumbing.…One maid was found sobbing in the pantry with water flooding out of the butler’s sink because she didn’t know how to turn off the tap. She had never seen a tap before in her life. • That night her aged ladyship had decided to sup on a cup of Benger’s food (a malted milk drink, rather like Ovaltine) and a digestive biscuit. So like a vast machine set in motion, the eight members of the staff were mobilized as if a for a full-time dinner party. First the housekeeper (1) came down to the kitchen to tell the cook that his was to be the menu tonight. Then I, the scullery maid, (2) was dispatched to fetch the new tin of Bengers’ from the store-room, and the special enamel saucepan. I handed them to the kitchen-maid (3) who took the lid off and handed the tin to the cook, together with the other necessary apparatus. The cook (4) then set to work making the Benger’s. Now the footman (5) came into action. He went to the butler (6) for the key to the cupboard which contained her ladyship’s silver tray. The butler gave him the key and waited while he took out the tray. Then the footman put the tray on his trolley and wheeled it to the kitchen, where the Benger’s and digestive biscuits were now standing in state awaiting for him. He put them on the tray and wheeled it off to the hall. Here the tray was taken by the head-house-maid (7). She took it up to her ladyship’s landing and knocked on her ladyship’s door. It was opened by the lady’s-maid (8) who took the tray and disappeared. • The gardeners drove a barrow of weeds half a mile around the grounds rather than risk being spotted by any guest or member of the family sitting on the terrace; the maids still turned their faces to the wall if they encountered their employers. • …recommendations for altering a small Victorian house suggest that the kitchen, once hidden in the lower depths of the house, should be raised to pavement-level – a first step for its progress from the basement to the center of the family home. (circa 1947) • Mrs. Canfield herself maintained old-fashioned standards of perfection. Jenny was required to turn out her mistress’s handbag and wash her loose change every night. I hope one or more of those snippets might entice you to read this book! Reviews: https://www.theguardian.com/books/201... https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-...

  5. 4 out of 5

    Blue

    Thank you Goodreads First Reads for a copy of this book! Well, watching Downton Abbey, I find myself thinking often that Fellows has used too much poetic license. I think, no way! Reading Servants, I realized just how much of DA is actually textbook stuff. This was really surprising. Things that seemed puzzling, like how Carson (the butler) was always huffing and puffing over the smallest details, and how he is often dressed to the teeth for dinner downstairs (in the kitchen, mind you!), and why Thank you Goodreads First Reads for a copy of this book! Well, watching Downton Abbey, I find myself thinking often that Fellows has used too much poetic license. I think, no way! Reading Servants, I realized just how much of DA is actually textbook stuff. This was really surprising. Things that seemed puzzling, like how Carson (the butler) was always huffing and puffing over the smallest details, and how he is often dressed to the teeth for dinner downstairs (in the kitchen, mind you!), and why the driver was such a class of his own compared to the other servants, and if one of the ladies of the house were to elope with any servant, why in the hell would it be the driver, and not, say a footman... Well, many things that don't make sense seem to make much more sense reading Lucy Lethbridge's account of the lives of those servants from Victorian, then Edwardian, and through the 20th century. Lethrbidge does a good job of putting things in perspective, and giving anecdotal as well as demographic information pertaining to the lives of servants and how service changed as the British identity that was partly defined by its servants changed over the last century. The study of service, presented here by Lethbridge in meticulous detail peppered with many accounts of aristocrats as well as servants, really is a study of how the changing political and socioeconomical landscape shaped modern ideals in hospitality, domesticity, and personal freedom. Some of the changes reveal very interesting international dynamics; how the lords and ladies returning from the colonies were considered too spoiled and incapable of managing British servants effectively, how waves of European and Jewish immigrants brought some stark differences between England and continental Europe into focus... It is fascinating to see how the uber-rich British families living in large estates with many servants resisted technological changes (like central heating, gas lamps, gas ovens, fridges, vacuum cleaners, washing machines...) and valued elbow grease as the only valid form of domestic work that was clean enough, good enough, perfect enough. It is interesting how they valued organic, whole grain, farm-grown over mass-produced, how they resisted buying clothes "off the peg" and kept their wardrobes of 5-layered dresses, each layer requiring a different iron setting... Hmm, parts o this is starting to sound like Brooklyn: in fact, the stuff that the estate did, Brooklynites are doing as hobbies now: pickling, canning, raising chickens, beekeeping... Except, no servants. So how far we have come to thing these laborious things for wholesome living have become hobbies rather than back-breaking chores for invisible servants. The main difference is perhaps that we do not have to can our own food, or make our own pickles. We can walk out to the corner and buy it form the corner store, or order it online. We have, it seems, learned to value exactly the opposite things for the same reasons as these aristocrats. Very strange. What's perhaps even more striking is how poor the poor were, most of whom would have a much much better quality of life if they went into service. Complete lack of freedom and back-breaking work for amazing amounts of food, and good, fresh food, with lots of unaffordable stuff like butter and tea and meat meat meat. So reading this book I learned that the British poor used to be poor like the poor in the rest of the world. The poor in the rest of the world have remained as poor, and the British have perhaps ceased to be as poor. It is unbelievable now that they were that poor, eating dripping and bread every day, maybe once a day. Yet there are millions who are this poor now in the world, and I am not sure if this means there is hope or absolutely no hope. Lastly, the book gave me some interesting vocabulary like donkey stone (a scouring stone used to scrub the front steps of the house, usually first thing in the morning, like 5 AM), butler's pantry (which has no food), and dripping. How fascinating! Recommended for those who like history, 20th century, gossip, velvet, and laundry.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ruth

    Really, really enjoyed this one. The author has pieced together, from a wide range of sources, an astonishingly coherent history of servants and life in service from both the perspective of the servants and their employers, from the mid-Victorian era to today. It was a far more thought-provoking read than I expected. Viewed from today (when you might generally have child care help or a weekly cleaner, if you're one of the lucky ones), the days when everyone had help in the home seem like a differ Really, really enjoyed this one. The author has pieced together, from a wide range of sources, an astonishingly coherent history of servants and life in service from both the perspective of the servants and their employers, from the mid-Victorian era to today. It was a far more thought-provoking read than I expected. Viewed from today (when you might generally have child care help or a weekly cleaner, if you're one of the lucky ones), the days when everyone had help in the home seem like a different planet. The sheer panic which rises from the pages as middle class women contemplate less help in the home is something I'd never realized. I was far more able to understand the "never again" feelings of the former servants as they contemplated life without having to conform to someone else's ideals of what their lives should and should not be. One of my grandmothers was in service in England, and so it felt like more of a personal history for me than it would for some. She was a daily woman, who cleaned a local big house. I never got to speak to her about it, and much of her history is, therefore, lost. It's through carefully researched books such as this one that a big part of my family's history lives on, I guess. 5 stars. I loved it.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Andrea Broomfield

    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 c 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 detail 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 (http://www.greycoatlumleys.co.uk/abou... ) and Norland Agency for nannies, (http://www.norlandagency.co.uk/). 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, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sD9bFc...) 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 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.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Sklape

    I heard about this book on Fresh Air and since Downton Abbey is currently airing, I thought this book would be a compliment to the show. I thoroughly enjoyed this social history. Service for many was the last possible option among working class people. Referred to as "skivvies" by their working class counterparts, those in service were viewed as contributing to the problem of class stratification. The resistance on the part of the aristocracy to adopt labor saving devices was based on the belief I heard about this book on Fresh Air and since Downton Abbey is currently airing, I thought this book would be a compliment to the show. I thoroughly enjoyed this social history. Service for many was the last possible option among working class people. Referred to as "skivvies" by their working class counterparts, those in service were viewed as contributing to the problem of class stratification. The resistance on the part of the aristocracy to adopt labor saving devices was based on the belief such devices would make their servants lazy and soft. Also, service in a middle class home was one of the worst positions to hold. Keeping up appearances necessitated a servant forgoing other basic needs to pay the meager wages for the all-purpose cook-maid. These women worked long hours and suffered repeated humiliation from their employers. Lethbridge is an engaging writer and uses voices of those who served to enrich the story. I highly recommend this this book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Andie

    The perfect antidote to those people who are living in the golden haze produced by too many hours watching Downton Abbey and other movie/TV shows that portray English servants in the early twentieth century as happy employees in harmony with their upper class employers, this well-researched book will put to rest any such fantasies. Instead it shows servants in the first half of the century to be over worked while being underpaid as well as under appreciated. The author uses interviews, letters an The perfect antidote to those people who are living in the golden haze produced by too many hours watching Downton Abbey and other movie/TV shows that portray English servants in the early twentieth century as happy employees in harmony with their upper class employers, this well-researched book will put to rest any such fantasies. Instead it shows servants in the first half of the century to be over worked while being underpaid as well as under appreciated. The author uses interviews, letters and diaries of former servants to bring this long gone world to life. Highly recommended.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    Well, it started out interesting, but then went on. And on. And on. I struggled to keep going, but confess to skimming the last half. It was, as another reviewer notes, strangely organized, and seemed to tread the same ground in chapter after chapter. Here's the CliffsNotes: being a servant in England pretty much sucked, and the middle and upper classes were jerks. The End. Now bring on the next season of "Downton Abbey." Well, it started out interesting, but then went on. And on. And on. I struggled to keep going, but confess to skimming the last half. It was, as another reviewer notes, strangely organized, and seemed to tread the same ground in chapter after chapter. Here's the CliffsNotes: being a servant in England pretty much sucked, and the middle and upper classes were jerks. The End. Now bring on the next season of "Downton Abbey."

  11. 4 out of 5

    Inder

    This is an excellent piece of history writing - I found it utterly engaging and fascinating from start to finish!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tocotin

    A book of high interest for anyone who doesn’t consider history to be the exclusive domain of mighty lords and ladies. A refreshing look at otherwise progressive and well-meaning intellectuals as well (Bloomsbury and others). The refinement, detachment and poise, all these things were possible because of the neglected and degraded humanity wasting their mental and physical strength on them. It’s mind-boggling really, the hold that money and class still have on us – most books and movies and othe A book of high interest for anyone who doesn’t consider history to be the exclusive domain of mighty lords and ladies. A refreshing look at otherwise progressive and well-meaning intellectuals as well (Bloomsbury and others). The refinement, detachment and poise, all these things were possible because of the neglected and degraded humanity wasting their mental and physical strength on them. It’s mind-boggling really, the hold that money and class still have on us – most books and movies and other stuff of dreams is about those parasites and their lolproblems. Did you guys know that the servants were supposed to turn towards the wall when they were cleaning the room and one of their employers happened to walk in? Would you like that? Whose shoes would you rather be in? Is there even a true answer to this question?

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kerry

    Extremely well-researched, this book offers insights into the different types and levels of service and the realities and challenges those in service faced throughout the decades. More thorough that many books on this topic, it's an excellent resource for someone who wants a more in-depth treatment in a readable format. Extremely well-researched, this book offers insights into the different types and levels of service and the realities and challenges those in service faced throughout the decades. More thorough that many books on this topic, it's an excellent resource for someone who wants a more in-depth treatment in a readable format.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Andrea Seaver

    Truth in reviewing first...... I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway. Servants is a non-fiction work detailing the lives and attitudes both of and towards domestic servants in the late nineteenth century through to the late twentieth century. Some references are to earlier periods, but as a whole this book begins with the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, and is sectioned into time periods based largely on world events. Pre-WWI and then the twenties, etc. The author has limite Truth in reviewing first...... I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway. Servants is a non-fiction work detailing the lives and attitudes both of and towards domestic servants in the late nineteenth century through to the late twentieth century. Some references are to earlier periods, but as a whole this book begins with the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, and is sectioned into time periods based largely on world events. Pre-WWI and then the twenties, etc. The author has limited source material, but as she explains, sadly, these servants either had no time to themselves to actually write a diary, or letters, or that if they did, who would have saved them? Servants was if not exactly an eye-opener for the reader who has a base of knowledge in the time period, a sharper focus, rather, on those that toiled their lives in the shadows. I was amused by stories of how helpless the upper classes were such as the young lord considered one of the most intelligent and literary of his generation who was unable to open a window, as a servant would have always done so for him,so simply broke it for fresh air. And appalled in turns as servants were treated as almost sub-human, living in dark damp rooms as afterthoughts. Servants brings to us a broadened spectrum of those that filled this role, and the ever changing times in which they had to perform their duties. The minutiae that they had to contend with, the oversight and nitpicking by their "betters" who thought nothing of having a 12 year old girl up at 4am to lay their fire, but insisted she turn her face to the wall if the master or mistress entered the room. Strange to consider, coming from so modern a day. But there was true depth of feeling as well, such as the young maid in the 30's whose employer was nearly destitute, who would act as it were the most natural thing to eat nothing but potatoes and margarine for meals, so as not to hurt her elderly mistresses feelings. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and the voices of those that Ms. Lethbridge wrote, using their letters and ledgers. I do wish however, that the source material was slightly broader, it was a narrow group of people from whom to learn a complex subject. Servants was an echo back to a lost time, one that is for many nostalgic, and for us at a distance, something more sterile. Now that I know exactly how these domestics had to live, and be treated, I will never think of them as "good-old days" again.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    More like 3 1/2 I've gotten used to narrative non-fiction, both through reading and podcasts, and this book is NOT in the narrative vein. It is more academic and expository. The author organizes the book by topics and themes, which sometimes correspond to a specific time period, and sometimes take a longer view. For example, a section titled "Bowing and Scraping" talks about the way servants often felt dehumanized in their roles, and the author provides examples and quotes from a variety of peopl More like 3 1/2 I've gotten used to narrative non-fiction, both through reading and podcasts, and this book is NOT in the narrative vein. It is more academic and expository. The author organizes the book by topics and themes, which sometimes correspond to a specific time period, and sometimes take a longer view. For example, a section titled "Bowing and Scraping" talks about the way servants often felt dehumanized in their roles, and the author provides examples and quotes from a variety of people through many decades. The scholarship that went into this book is impressive: the author obviously waded through and abundance of diaries, letters, newspapers, and interviews to construct this book. Certain "characters" show up in several chapters, such as an American journalist who went undercover as a servant in the late 1800s, or a career butler who retired in the 1960s. But with so many examples and "characters", you never really get any kind of narrative thread, because it's not that kind of non-fiction. I picked up this book because I am fascinated with the idea of servants, because it is a pretty foreign concept to me. I learned quite a bit from this book, both about how common it used to be to have servants in the home, and about how the role of servant evolved over time, until servants finally began to disappear and how the burden of running a household fell on the woman of the house. It is crazy to think about how lifestyle gurus such as Martha Stewart exhort individuals (women, usually) to aspire to the fussy perfection and elegance of an Edwardian-era noble considering that this kind of domestic perfection required sometimes dozens of hired help. It is interesting to think about how western society has gone from in-home servants to an externalized service industry. (this theme is only lightly touched on in this book). This book gave me a lot to think about, and while it was fairly exhaustive, it actually made me think of many more questions about servants and service I would like answers for.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lesley

    Upstairs Downstairs. Gosford Park. Remains of the Day. Downton Abbey. These fictional depictions of early 20th century British households have nurtured an obsessive fascination with butlers and ladies maids, 14 piece silver dinner sets, and the illusions of a simpler, more gracious time. Lucy Lethbridge slices through the sentimentality with the deadliness of a finely honed carving knife, revealing a history of domestic service that is far less rosy than what one sees onscreen. Along the way, sh Upstairs Downstairs. Gosford Park. Remains of the Day. Downton Abbey. These fictional depictions of early 20th century British households have nurtured an obsessive fascination with butlers and ladies maids, 14 piece silver dinner sets, and the illusions of a simpler, more gracious time. Lucy Lethbridge slices through the sentimentality with the deadliness of a finely honed carving knife, revealing a history of domestic service that is far less rosy than what one sees onscreen. Along the way, she provides illuminating insights into the inherent snobbery of ostentatious foodie-ism, (serving home grown freshly prepared produce at every meal was a sign of having a large staff), the origins of British resistance to technology and central heating, (who needs labor saving devices when you have an army of skivvies?) and the roots of anti-unionism (legalizing workers' rights was feared to interfere with the "unique bond" between masters and servants.) Upper and middle class feminism comes in for criticism as well; a woman's ability to cultivate "the inner life" was dependent on another, poorer woman's availability to run the household and care for the children.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Shari Larsen

    This book explores the culture of domestic service workers in Britain, from around the 1890s through the 1960s, and the families that employed them, and how the two world wars affected those occupations. The author details the work of cooks, parlor maids, footmen, scullery maids, butlers, etc, through interviews with former domestic workers, and through letters and diaries. This was a very interesting read, and I really enjoyed it, though there were 2 or 3 chapters that to me, seemed a little too This book explores the culture of domestic service workers in Britain, from around the 1890s through the 1960s, and the families that employed them, and how the two world wars affected those occupations. The author details the work of cooks, parlor maids, footmen, scullery maids, butlers, etc, through interviews with former domestic workers, and through letters and diaries. This was a very interesting read, and I really enjoyed it, though there were 2 or 3 chapters that to me, seemed a little too bogged down with repetitious details, but overall, this is a great book both for history lovers, and those that enjoy historical fiction and just want to learn more about the lives of servants. I really enjoyed the many interesting stories that the workers themselves had to tell about their employers.

  18. 5 out of 5

    John Levon

    A really interesting read, relying heavily on interviews and recordings with servants of the time. It does a great job describing the changing patterns of domestic service across the 20th century, especially on how the two wars changed things so much. The book is as much about the master as it is the servant, and some of the stories here are eye-opening - some people used to get their loose change washed by their servants - every night! There's a very small bit of info about the Raj, would have li A really interesting read, relying heavily on interviews and recordings with servants of the time. It does a great job describing the changing patterns of domestic service across the 20th century, especially on how the two wars changed things so much. The book is as much about the master as it is the servant, and some of the stories here are eye-opening - some people used to get their loose change washed by their servants - every night! There's a very small bit of info about the Raj, would have liked more of that. It also doesn't really cover modern service much, though that's not really the focus of the book.

  19. 5 out of 5

    TheRealMelbelle

    I became interested in this book after hearing an intriguing Fresh Air interview on NPR. This is a very interesting book. It was well written and did a good job dealing with the subject of domestic servants in light of the changing culture and needs of Britain primarily from Edwardian times until the 1950s. There was such societal change and the role and employment of servants during that time was complex. Lucy Lethbridge organized a lot of material in a very readable account of this fascinating I became interested in this book after hearing an intriguing Fresh Air interview on NPR. This is a very interesting book. It was well written and did a good job dealing with the subject of domestic servants in light of the changing culture and needs of Britain primarily from Edwardian times until the 1950s. There was such societal change and the role and employment of servants during that time was complex. Lucy Lethbridge organized a lot of material in a very readable account of this fascinating segment of history. I will never romanticize the servant's life again!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Alison

    I enjoyed this a lot. There's a lot of interesting detail about the running of those houses in late Victorian/Edwardian England that I find fascinating (and horrifying.) When you watch Downton Abbey, think of the servants in the kitchen, washing dishes without gloves or even a dishcloth because fingers could get into the small places better. Or stirring a pot of boiling eggs so the yolks would be centered. There's nothing new here but it's presented well, including interviews with men and women I enjoyed this a lot. There's a lot of interesting detail about the running of those houses in late Victorian/Edwardian England that I find fascinating (and horrifying.) When you watch Downton Abbey, think of the servants in the kitchen, washing dishes without gloves or even a dishcloth because fingers could get into the small places better. Or stirring a pot of boiling eggs so the yolks would be centered. There's nothing new here but it's presented well, including interviews with men and women who had been in service.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    Fun read, really interesting I'm glad I didn't have to be a servant in Victorian or Edwardian England. I wouldn't have survived. This book is a really good look at the work they did, how many different kinds of servants there were, and how they coped. It also talks about the employers, their expectations and frustrations. The author uses a mix of personal stories, studies done over the decade, a look at servants in popular fiction, and statistics. It flowed and always kept my interest. Fun read, really interesting I'm glad I didn't have to be a servant in Victorian or Edwardian England. I wouldn't have survived. This book is a really good look at the work they did, how many different kinds of servants there were, and how they coped. It also talks about the employers, their expectations and frustrations. The author uses a mix of personal stories, studies done over the decade, a look at servants in popular fiction, and statistics. It flowed and always kept my interest.

  22. 5 out of 5

    CatBookMom

    Somehow this book just didn't keep my interest enough to want to finish it. There were interesting bits, particularly that even English families of very low income levels had at least one live-in maid/cook/laundrywoman until quite late in the 19th century, in some cases into the early 20th. Somehow this book just didn't keep my interest enough to want to finish it. There were interesting bits, particularly that even English families of very low income levels had at least one live-in maid/cook/laundrywoman until quite late in the 19th century, in some cases into the early 20th.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Paola

    In this very interesting book Lucy Lethbridge traces the history of domestic service in Britain (well, England, mostly) concentrating mainly around the first half of the twentieth century, from its apogee of the Edwardian period to its essential extintion in the sixties. In so doing she also sketches a social history of England, of the evolution of the attitudes to the class system and the role of women in the house and in the wider society. Lethbridge draws from an impressive range of sources, fr In this very interesting book Lucy Lethbridge traces the history of domestic service in Britain (well, England, mostly) concentrating mainly around the first half of the twentieth century, from its apogee of the Edwardian period to its essential extintion in the sixties. In so doing she also sketches a social history of England, of the evolution of the attitudes to the class system and the role of women in the house and in the wider society. Lethbridge draws from an impressive range of sources, from better known various published memoirs (from Margaret Powell's Below stairs to Jean Rennie's Every Other Sunday or Winifred Foley's books), to more obscure unpublished diaries (e.g. those of Alice Osbourn, who covered various roles in service at Rectory Farm, in Taplow), letters, editorial and articles in newspapers new and old (from Time and Tides, here described as a 'suffragette magazine' to the Manchester Guardian to The Times), interviews, BBC radio programmes from the forties, and other fascinating works as Mrs Al­fred Praga's 1899 Appearances: How to Keep Them Up on a Limited Income manual for the middle class housewife struggling to keep control of her household - indeed, just following up a fraction of these leads would keep me busy for a few years! Lethbridge manages to convey a remarkable amount of information, analysis and contrasting points of views in what is a relatively short book, which flows effortlessly and leaves you wanting for more: no summary would do her justice, just read the book :-)

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    I recently became a "Downton Abbey" addict and thus wanted to explore in greater depth what being a servant really meant in 19th century Britain and beyond. This non fiction is a broad sketch of servitude well organized into sections which show the shifting of perceptions of it throughout time. Having a servant or servants went from being a symbol of status for a family to something that marked them as being wasteful and unwilling to embrace new technologies. Throughout each section you'll hear I recently became a "Downton Abbey" addict and thus wanted to explore in greater depth what being a servant really meant in 19th century Britain and beyond. This non fiction is a broad sketch of servitude well organized into sections which show the shifting of perceptions of it throughout time. Having a servant or servants went from being a symbol of status for a family to something that marked them as being wasteful and unwilling to embrace new technologies. Throughout each section you'll hear actual servant opinions as well as family ones. You'll read about a Lord so befuddled at how to open his room window that he smashes it with his cane in anger during the absence of an attendant's help. You'll read about those families who saw a financial help in sending their daughters and sons into service at a young age even if the children had other interests. You'll read about servants so good at being servants that they were often confused as being Master of the House, though of course not at the fault of the servant. You'll hear servants opinions of their bosses, each other and of their own lives. As time elapsed and there were other financial opportunities to be tried, you'll hear from families displeased at their ability to secure good employees. You'll see the pressures the family's faced in terms of being perceived as "old fashioned" if they maintained staff in their homes and refused the technological advances that would make those servants obsolete. You'll hear servants speak on wanting technological help to perform their duties. Basically you'll hear from all angles how service actually was without polishing and how nowadays the majority of the servants (for there are still some) are imported from elsewhere and how during WWII, many German servants were put into internment camps on the Isle of Wight for fear they were Nazi spies. There's a lot to be learned about the real upstairs/downstairs and I'm so glad this book is on offer to learn from.

  25. 4 out of 5

    peggy murphy mercado

    I just finished, 'Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge. As I stated previously, this was a book that I had won through Goodreads Giveaways. I am glad that I read this book; which was quite a detailed history about home in general and the way in which the English redefined how their homes looked and ran. I learned some things; that I hadn't known. For instance, I had no idea how ingrained the whole concept of service seemed to be I just finished, 'Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge. As I stated previously, this was a book that I had won through Goodreads Giveaways. I am glad that I read this book; which was quite a detailed history about home in general and the way in which the English redefined how their homes looked and ran. I learned some things; that I hadn't known. For instance, I had no idea how ingrained the whole concept of service seemed to be for much of British Society. I had always assumed that the people who served, worked exclusively for the extremely wealthy. Ms. Lethbridge writes a good deal about middle class families employing servants. Ms. Lethbridge also covers wwll, a transitional time with regard to service in the home. I did not know that people who fled from Nazi occupation of various European countries, came to England, working in service. It was interesting to see parallels between those who serve and the struggle for the English Homemaker to both learn domestic skills and to define herself. On another note, I don't know if Downton Abbey used this book as a reference. As a result of having read the first couple of chapters as I was watching the 1st episode of season 4, I understood some of the behaviors of the characters (both upstairs and downstairs) on the show in a different way. If you enjoy social history, women's studies, different cultures (certainly the idea of barely making ends meet and yet employing household staff comes from if not a different culture, then a different mindset.) I think that you will enjoy this book.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Lois

    Um wow this book has everything, detailed accounts of servants and those they served. Fascinating details on servants daily life, career track, as well as life both inside of service and outside of service. This equally covers the class system and distinctions both within society at large as well as society below stairs and behind green baize doors. Fascinating how the wars (WWI and WWII) change service. Service barely stabilizes, a very much smaller and less presumptuous affair than in Edwardia Um wow this book has everything, detailed accounts of servants and those they served. Fascinating details on servants daily life, career track, as well as life both inside of service and outside of service. This equally covers the class system and distinctions both within society at large as well as society below stairs and behind green baize doors. Fascinating how the wars (WWI and WWII) change service. Service barely stabilizes, a very much smaller and less presumptuous affair than in Edwardian heyday. WW2 just kills whatever is left of that style of living, very much to the benefit of the rest of the country. The vast poverty that existed across the country, while the Aristocracy lived so unbelievably better was horrifying. To think poverty lived next door to extreme abundance like that. It's also fascinating how the war as well as fair taxation for the Aristocracy took the class down so quickly. The nostalgia for the wealthy of that time period puzzles me. I love Downton Abbey but the treatment of those below stairs is vastly and unrealistically idealized. The Aristocracy controlled massive amounts of wealth and largely ignored the suffering of the poor. Only taking advantage of them in service. Harrowing system.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    I've read better books (from the 1970s, when Upstairs Downstairs was hot and Edwardian servants were still around to be interviewed) with more first-hand accounts of servant life, but this book, despite its overly ambitious subtitle, does something those books didn't: it details part-time service like the Useful Aunts, newly poor aristos making some cash in service, and talks about the second half of the twentieth century. You can feel that Lethbridge did a lot of reading before she wrote this, I've read better books (from the 1970s, when Upstairs Downstairs was hot and Edwardian servants were still around to be interviewed) with more first-hand accounts of servant life, but this book, despite its overly ambitious subtitle, does something those books didn't: it details part-time service like the Useful Aunts, newly poor aristos making some cash in service, and talks about the second half of the twentieth century. You can feel that Lethbridge did a lot of reading before she wrote this, but it feels like she could have done with more organization, as though she needed a good index card note taking system. To many little anecdotes and facts are repeated. There are about five sentences that cover the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century and it's implied that the narrative is proceeding chronologically but it really isn't. Also somewhat unexpected is the feeling of kinship with the Masters and Mistresses, the greater sympathy for the once well-off struggling to get by after WWII, and those who ended up cook-caterers when they'd once had servants of their own. Perhaps fills a niche but there are better, older books on the topic.h

  28. 4 out of 5

    La La

    First of all this is not a fiction novel, it is a history book. I saw a couple of bad reviews based on the fact that it didn't "read" like a novel. If you are a fan of Downton Abbey, and/or Upstairs Downstairs, you will love this book. Anglophiles will also enjoy this trip through the years of British aristocracy and their house staff, from the 19th century to modern times. I am usually not a fan of history books, or anything that smacks of text book, but this book is written in a way that made First of all this is not a fiction novel, it is a history book. I saw a couple of bad reviews based on the fact that it didn't "read" like a novel. If you are a fan of Downton Abbey, and/or Upstairs Downstairs, you will love this book. Anglophiles will also enjoy this trip through the years of British aristocracy and their house staff, from the 19th century to modern times. I am usually not a fan of history books, or anything that smacks of text book, but this book is written in a way that made it a smooth and enjoyable read, even for my tastes. After reading this book I want to go back and watch all of the Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey episodes again. My head is full of facts and I want to see how that changes my veiw of certain story lines, and circumstances, within these series. There are also two or three movies based on British house servants and I will be wanting to rewatch those also. If I was rating it solely on its historical merits I would have given it four stars, but because Lethbridge made the reading more enjoyable than a normal history book I added a star. I received this book through First Reads in exchange for an honest review.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rae

    Quite frankly, I couldn't finish this book. I suspect many other readers will be attracted to this title for the same reason I was, interest in knowing more based on enjoyment of the show Downton Abbey. Unfortunately, poor organization and repetitive information drag a book that had the research and promise to be a truly interesting read into something that became unreadable for me. My primary issue was a lack of organization. Each chapter seemed to rehash similar information, cover broad periods Quite frankly, I couldn't finish this book. I suspect many other readers will be attracted to this title for the same reason I was, interest in knowing more based on enjoyment of the show Downton Abbey. Unfortunately, poor organization and repetitive information drag a book that had the research and promise to be a truly interesting read into something that became unreadable for me. My primary issue was a lack of organization. Each chapter seemed to rehash similar information, cover broad periods of time, and revisit similar themes. Were it to be organized chronologically, by service area, by household size, really ANYTHING it would have been much better. The lack of narrative direction made this book feel like a poorly organized undergraduate thesis rather than the fascinating body of research it could and should have been. There are moments of organized thought and direction, which kept me hanging on as long as I did, but I frankly can't recommend this to anyone who doesn't have the patience to plod through such an immense amount of information with so little direction.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    This delightful book tells a familiar tale to fans of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs: the rigid rectitude of the Victorian master-servant relationship (with an occasional dark exception), the growing demand for autonomy and independence that began toward the end of the Victorian period and was vastly accelerated by WWI -- and completed by WWII -- and the brief resurgence caused by the employment problems of the 20s and 30s. All of that is familiar, but what Leatherbridge does particularly This delightful book tells a familiar tale to fans of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs: the rigid rectitude of the Victorian master-servant relationship (with an occasional dark exception), the growing demand for autonomy and independence that began toward the end of the Victorian period and was vastly accelerated by WWI -- and completed by WWII -- and the brief resurgence caused by the employment problems of the 20s and 30s. All of that is familiar, but what Leatherbridge does particularly well is mine the few diaries and primary sources that give us the voices of the servants themselves. Her research is meticulous and helps round out the usual story with nuance and depth. Highly recommended for readers interested in the latter part of the Victorian period, and the changes in the class system in the UK wrought by the 20th C and all its horrific wars and long-overdue liberations.

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