Downton Abbey as History

What the Show Got Right About Life in a Country House

Downton Abbey, the television series coproduced by Carnival Films and WGBH, has set off a volley of debates about how we see the past, and about how much any drama, even a well-researched one, can contribute to historical understanding. Downton Abbey is, of course, entertainment, not documentary. Even so, Julian Fellowes, the show's creator, had a definite historical goal. He conceived of the series as an illumination of country-house life in the early twentieth century, particularly of the separate but interconnected orbits of the aristocracy and the servants. In that goal, Fellowes succeeds with panache.

THE CASTE OF CHARACTERS

Downton Abbey, the enormous Jacobean style country house in the show, is the seat of an Edwardian-era earl who is married to an American heiress. In real life, the indoor staff of such an earl's household would have included a butler, several liveried footmen, and a dedicated valet; outside, there would have been grooms, gardeners, gamekeepers, and so on. The female servants who reported to a head housekeeper would have been even more numerous. At Welbeck Abbey, the seat of the Dukes of Portland in North Nottinghamshire, in 1902, there were no fewer than fourteen housemaids alone. At Goodwood House, the home of the Dukes of Richmond in Sussex, there were still seven housemaids into the 1920s. 

In Downton Abbey, the number of servants was deliberately reduced to simplify the narrative, and jobs that would have been filled by several people were condensed. The show portrays a butler, two footmen, a valet, and a chauffeur. The cast of female characters includes a housekeeper, a lady's maid, housemaids, a cook, and a kitchen maid. The kitchen maid, Daisy, also cleans the bedroom fireplaces. In effect, Daisy is an amalgam of a junior housemaid, a kitchen maid, and a scullery maid (cleaner of pots and pans). 

Such simplifications aside, the press' main criticism of the accuracy of Downton Abbey was that the show presented the two classes of people -- the servants and the served -- as too interconnected and friendly. Fellowes does portray them as close; the servants are workers, but they are also trusted and loyal friends, and sometimes lovers. The paternal devotion of the unmarried butler to the eldest daughter of the house shows how his master's children have become, in spirit, his children, too. And the devotion goes both ways: Lord Grantham stands by his valet, a wounded soldier, through thick and thin. A romance between Branson, the fiery Irish chauffeur, and the lovely Lady Sibyl, the daughter of Lord and Lady Grantham, is one of the most dramatic personal stories of the series. 

Certainly, the marriage of Branson and Sibyl would have been highly unusual for the time. But some viewers seem to have found it difficult to believe that servants were even minimally well treated or close to their employers. One newspaper critic found the idea of a servants' ball, during which the family would dance with the staff, particularly incredible. Others disputed the show's portrayal of the servants' ample free time and comfortable rooms. 

But servants' balls were, in fact, de rigueur in great country houses, as were Christmas gifts to servants. To be sure, there are examples of country houses in which the servants' quarters were not generous and the employers inconsiderate. And, certainly, there were awful jobs. The laundry maids and scullery maids in Edwardian country houses were constantly washing clothes and dishes -- unpleasant tasks which were hard physical work for the young girls employed to do it. 

Plenty of evidence, however, indicates that servants in many of the large households were well trained and well managed. In terms of training, footmen, for example, spent several years learning the care and maintenance of silver and glass and the care of fine furniture and gilded frames. Their skills were effectively expected to be on par with professional conservationists in modern museums. The aristocracy would simply not have owned priceless objects if they could not keep them at home and attend to them with in-house teams.

And the management of professionalized servants was often better than modern audience realize, too. Young people from rural communities often went into service voluntarily, usually to learn a portable trade. Once they earned a placement, they were the beneficiaries of good food, fine accommodation, and considerable security. Some former servants recalled their time in service before the First World War as the most carefree of their lives, as every aspect of their lives was organized for them. In his memoir, From Hall-Boy to House-Steward, one steward, William Lanceley, recounted that the improved diet and spacious quarters that the staff of a big country house enjoyed made servants' visits home, to their own families in humbler abodes, quite awkward. 

Indeed, taking pleasure in grandeur and in the sense of theatre of aristocratic life was often what attracted young people to the service in the first place. Rosina Harrison, Lady Nancy Astor's lady's maid, recalled in her memoirs a colleague who "was an excellent footman; he'd be playing the fool in the wings but from the moment he went on stage he was straight into his part. It was the theatre of service which appealed to him, the dressing up in livery with almost period movement and big gestures that fitted the Louis Quinze dining-room at Cliveden." In other words, one of Downton Abbey's most amusing subplots, the exposure of the long-suffering butler Carson's earlier career as a music-hall artist, might not have been such an unlikely scenario.

There is no question that, as in Downton Abbey, many of the highly trained resident domestic staff in country houses became friendly with their employers -- and, sometimes, even lovers (surely as awkward as twenty-first-century office romances). At the very least, memoirs, letters, and wills, which I explored for my book Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant, consistently revealed a sense of shared goals and common purpose among the co-occupants. Until the 1900s, the word "family" was expressly used to describe the whole household. 

ARISTOCRATIC ARCHITECTURE

All this shouldn't really come as a surprise: the paradox of the late-Edwardian world is that the provision of the extraordinary level of luxury that the wealthy expected required other people's constant presence, attention, and trust. Given the way the aristocracy lived, they had to have servants constantly in their home and in their company, and they needed to trust and respect them to receive trust and respect in return. 

Servants were on hand to supply the needs of the individual, to provide security, and to begin cleaning and preparing the house by five in the morning for the use of family and guests. The intimacy that servants had with their masters and mistresses is astonishing from our modern perspective. Fellowes brilliantly captures the close dependence of Lord Grantham on his valet and of Lady Grantham on her lady's maid; these workers, historically referred to as "body servants," helped their employers bathe, dress, and prepare for the outside world. 

Most senior servants did not go to bed until the family and guests had retired. And since country houses were maintained to such exacting standards, many of them had upholsterers on staff who could fix furniture on the spot; if furniture was damaged during an evening house party, it could be repaired before the guests appeared in the room the following day. A lady's maid could mend a dress and a valet could repair a jacket.

This intimacy and dependence was fostered by clear boundaries between the aristocracy and their servants, which extended even to the architecture of the house. As suggested by the set of Downton Abbey, the need to accommodate domestic staff was a major design challenge for the architects of English country houses. It is possible to trace, from the sixteenth century on, the battle between providing grandeur and luxury on the one hand and privacy on the other. In his treatise on architecture, Roger North, an aristocratic late-seventeenth-century writer, explained the value of keeping servants' rooms far enough away from the main staterooms of the house that they would be invisible when they were not wanted but close enough to be in easy reach when needed. 

During the seventeenth century, kitchens and sculleries and some of the servants' own accommodation, which had traditionally been on the ground floor, were moved underground; such a design is shown on Downton Abbey. Even so, the location of servants' quarters was hotly debated well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

FOREVER TOGETHER

The intimacy of the servants with the other servants is also surprising to modern eyes. Both sexes and people of all ages worked in close community -- some for a few years, others for decades. They shared bedrooms, meals, and workspaces; they were often marched together to church on Sundays and usually spent their free evenings together, since any other entertainments were too far away. 

What is often commonly overlooked, however, is that the hierarchy between servants was often as strict as that between the servants and the employers. In his memoir Carriages and Kings, a servant who, in the early 1900s, was employed in a house with more than 60 indoor domestic staff and 200 outdoor staff, including grooms, stable boys, estate farmers, and launderers, hints at the rigid hierarchy. On viewing his own quarters, Gorst, a newly recruited footman, was "delighted to see [the footmen] had an open fireplace, which would be cosy in winter. The rooms were kept spotlessly clean by a housemaid assigned to the footman's quarters." He was also pleased to find a billiard room set aside for the leisure time of the male servants in the house. He noted that the upper servants and the lower servants, among whom he ranked, rarely ate together; junior footmen were trained by serving the upper servants. Gorst recalled how "the upper servants adopted an arrogant attitude towards the under servants" and rarely socialized with them outside of their duties.

This strict hierarchy was fostered to encourage discipline and deference without the master and mistress of the house having to exert it directly. In Downton Abbey, this aspect of the life of a servant is perhaps missing. For instance, upper and lower servants are shown dining together, an elision for dramatic economy -- a shared meal is naturally a better plot driver than two separate ones. 

As Downton Abbey hints, though, despite strict rules, joining a large household staff would have been more appealing than joining a small one. In the early 1900s, middle-class households that had formerly employed a number of servants often had to rely on only one, who naturally could feel both lonely and put-upon. 

After World War II, many of the great country houses were shuttered, and upper and upper-middle-class houses struggled to do more with less. In those years, shambolic scruffiness became a landmark of British fashion. But "shabby chic" was really a modern idea, partly invented to make the best of the situation; big houses could no longer afford the trained servants needed for their perfect upkeep. Downton Abbey presents a vividly effective portrait of the servant-supported lifestyle just before this dramatic decline. Julian Fellowes' series captures the feeling of the great country house in action, the high standards and ritualistic life that were supported by a large and (usually) dedicated resident staff, no matter what crises were going on. Behind the scenes were all the normal heartaches and joys of human life. But, as in Downton Abbey, on the country-house stage, the show just went on -- until World War II caused the curtain to fall on a way of life that seemed to epitomize the self-assured permanence of the English aristocracy.

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