Cover image for 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
Lethbridge, Lucy.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
Physical Description:
xi, 385 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm
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.
General Note:
Originally published under the title: Servants : a downstairs view of twentieth-century Britain.
Preface -- The symbolic pantomime -- "A sort of silence and embarrassment" -- The dainty life -- "A seat in the hall" -- Centralising the egg yolks -- Popinjays and mob caps -- The desire for perfection -- "Some poor girl's got to go up and down, up and down -- " -- The sacred trust -- The ideal village -- "Silent, obsequious and omnipresent" -- Bowing and scraping -- The age of ambivalence -- Out of a cage -- "Don't think your life will be any different to mine" -- "It was exploitation but it worked" -- "Tall, strong, healthy and keen to work" -- The mechanical maid -- Outer show and inner life -- A vast machine that has forgotten how to stop working -- Bachelor establishments are notoriously comfortable -- The question of the inner life -- "Do they really drink out of their saucers?' -- "Of alien origin" -- A new jerusalem -- A new and useful life -- The housewife militant -- "The change : it must have been terrible for them" -- The shape of things to come -- "We don't want them days again' -- "We've moved to the front" -- "I'd never done what i liked -- never in all my life" -- "We like it because the past is not so worrying as the news" -- Notes -- Bibliography -- Acknowledgements -- Index.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HD8039.D52 L48 2013 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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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.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

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 .--Flanagan, Margaret Copyright 2010 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Part I The Symbolic Pantomime
1 'A Sort of Silence and Embarrassment'p. 3
2 The Dainty Lifep. 13
3 'A Seat in the Hall'p. 25
4 Centralising the Egg Yolksp. 34
5 Popinjays and Mob Capsp. 41
6 The Desire for Perfectionp. 50
7 'Some Poor Girl's Got To Go Up and Down, Up and Down ...'p. 59
Part II The Sacred Trust
8 The Ideal Villagep. 83
9 'Silent, Obsequious and Omnipresent'p. 100
10 'Bowing and Scraping'p. 113
Part III The Age of Ambivalence
11 'Out of a Cage'p. 141
12 'Don't Think Your Life Will Be Any Different to Mine'p. 149
13 æIt Was Exploitation But It WorkedÆp. 161
14 'Tall, Strong, Healthy and Keen to Work'p. 170
15 The Mechanical Maidp. 180
Part IV Outer Show and Inner Life
16 'A Vast Machine That Has Forgotten How to Stop Working'p. 193
17 'Bachelor Establishments Are Notoriously Comfortable'p. 208
18 The Question of the Inner Lifep. 218
19 'Do They Really Drink Out of Their Saucers?'p. 229
20 'Of Alien Origin'p. 236
Part V A New Jerusalem
21 'A New and Useful Life'p. 251
22 The Housewife Militantp. 265
23 'The Change: It Must Have Been Terrible for Them'p. 276
24 The Shape of Things to Comep. 286
Part VI 'We Don't Want Them Days Again'
25 'We've Moved to the Front'p. 299
26 'I'd Never Done What I Liked ... Never in All My Life'p. 310
27 'We Like It Because the Past Is Not So Worrying as the News'p. 316
Notesp. 327
Bibliographyp. 353
Acknowledgementsp. 369
Indexp. 371