Due to the phenomenal success of Downton Abbey, British domestic service has become, dare I say, a trending topic. I think Americans find the whole institution particularly intriguing because our history lacks the same social rigidity that existed between the aristocracy and servant classes. In addition, the American experience with household help has been fraught with emotionally charged issues separate from class alone:
So heightened is the interest surrounding the domestic profession that last fall the BBC broadcast a three-part series called Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs. Hosted by social historian Dr. Pamela Cox, this documentary examines the difficult existence of the over 1.5 million people who worked in the kitchens, nurseries, parlors and stables of the privileged classes from the Victorian era through WWII.
I watched the first installment and found it to be informative, if not a tad sensationalized. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve no illusions. The lives of these servants were exhausting, monotonous, and isolating; however, more than a few times when Dr. Cox found instances of indisputable fondness between servants and their employers, she was quick, almost eager in fact, to point out how rare this genuine feeling was. If it was so out of the ordinary, why bother including these examples in the first place? Despite this minor annoyance, I still think it’s worth the time to watch it on YouTube if the topic interests you.
Even before all this recent hullabaloo, the lives of domestic staff and their employers were in the spotlight as the subject of a very interesting social experiment on Channel 4/PBS in 2002. Does anyone remember The Manor House?
One modern-day family was chosen to be the residents of an Edwardian manor house while fifteen individuals with no domestic experience volunteered to be their household staff for three months. From the start, the family settled into their life of luxury and privilege with the master of the house embracing his role a bit too much. The servants didn’t fare as well. The younger participants in particular had difficulty dealing with the constant physical demands, the strict hierarchical structure and the lack of modern mutual respect. Apparently once people get used to being treated as equals, they’re aren’t too keen to return to the “good old days”.
Of course, all this got me to pondering telly valets, housekeepers and other domestics throughout the years. Who was taking care of the gentry and social up-and-comers before the likes of Carson, Bates, Mrs. Hughes and Anna? Who was smirking and scheming below stairs before Thomas and O’Brien? Let me say up front, there won’t be any mention of the staff from Upstairs, Downstairs – the classic or the reboot. I gave the new Masterpiece series a try, but it didn’t hold my attention and the original just was never on my radar. It’s a horrible omission in the history of British drama and will do my best to rectify this in the future. But for now…
1. The many incarnations of Baldrick – The Black Adder
The original Baldrick and his descendents are always servants, or at least subservient, to generations of Edmund Blackadders. Whether he’s a medieval squire, Elizabethan bondsman, Regency underscrogsman, or a WWI army private, Baldrick is hygienically challenged, a frequent object of insults, and, despite his cunning plan brainwaves, he grows progressively dumber in each era.
2. Jeeves – Jeeves and Wooster
If you need impeccable fashion advice, an invigorating hangover remedy or the answer to just about any general knowledge question, Jeeves is your man. When this miraculous valet mysteriously appeared upon the doorstep of Bertie Wooster, it was a very fortunate day indeed for the gormless, young aristocrat.
Lexie, Golly and Duncan – Monarch of the Glen
In the Scottish Highlands new laird, Archie MacDonald, is doing his very best to hold onto Glenbogle, his family’s ancestral home. Necessity requires that estates with financial woes must make do with a minimal amount of staff. Lexie McTavish is not only the housekeeper, but the cook as well. In the olden days, she would be considered a maid of all work, the most demanding of all servant positions, but if you ask me, her work attire suggests she’s not that serious about cleaning. Golly Mackenzie’s domain is the great outdoors with his primary duties being gamekeeper and gillie (someone who leads hunting and fishing parties on the grounds). Gruff and traditional, Golly’s loyalty to Glenbogle and the family can’t be questioned. Finally Duncan McKay is, for lack of a better term, the staff gopher, constantly galumping around the estate in his kilt and hiking boots. Akin to something like a family pet, Duncan hopes to someday prove himself and move up in the household.
I’ll end with a quote from Gosford Park, which was written by Julian Fellowes and was his jumping off point for Downton Abbey, by the way. The quintessential housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson describes the most important attribute for a servant and possibly, a murderess, to possess. “What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant. I’m better than good. I’m the best. I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.”
All the more reason for men like the Earl of Grantham to be kind and supportive masters. I bet Mrs. Patmore never spits in his food.