2014: 45. Servants

"In 1901 the Earl of Derby, viewing the prospect of hosting the new King, Edward VII, and forty of the King's friends at Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool, was overheard to say of the arrangements the visits would require: 'that makes sixty extra servants and with the thirty-seven who live in, nothing could be simpler. . . '"

Servants,  Lucy Lethbridge

This is very good social history, which is, of course, one of my favorite genres.  It's a survey history of service in Britain from the nineteenth century to modern times.  Which is to say, it takes you from Downton Abbey to modern au pairs, and, nicely, handles everything in between.  Yes, we learn about giant estates with fifty servants - but Lethbridge also notes that in reality most people who were in service were in smaller homes where there were one or two people working.  She really grapples with the English relationship to service - how upper class people expected it and had to learn without as times changes, and how lower class people first did it as a matter of course, but over time would rather do almost anything else.  The whole service thing is different there than here - she keeps emphasizing how entrenched it was - so much that people rejected labor saving devices (such as washing machines) that were already common in America for decades. 

If you've read any books from the period the issues will be familiar - the "servant problem," the importation of foreign labor, the old family retainers.  I thought so much of Christie, Sayers, et al when I read this - you could certainly write an article about mystery fiction reflects the social issues of the time (what a fun thesis for some college history major - kids, you can have that one for free).  Lethbridge writes her book chronologically - so we start with Edwardian mores, and gradually come to the present (when only the super rich have traditional service, and the rest have nannies and house cleaners).  There are certain threads that run throughout - one of the most critical being that domestic service has value - and that women who want to accomplish other things often do it on the backs of women in service.  Which remains true today, no? (Says the woman with a full time nanny).

If I had any quibble, it's that I could have gone even deeper into the issues raised.  For example, other than a jab about au pairs in the 1970's, she doesn't talk much about questions of sex and sexual exploitation - which seems to me must have been an issue - all those young girls and boys living together - in the house of a person with power over them.  And though she talks about what happens to servants after, a bit, I could have read more about that.  But since my only complaint is that I could have read even more on this topic, obviously, this was a great read. 

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017