Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Life below Stairs: In the Victorian and Edwardian Country House by Siân Evans

This is an interesting and informative non-fiction book on the life of servants in Victorian and Edwardian times.

From the description at Goodreads:
From the cook, butler, and housekeeper to the footman, lady's maid and nanny, this is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of some of Britain's grandest houses. An entertaining social history, steering the reader through the minefield of etiquette and hierarchy that kept Britain's great houses running like clockwork. A bygone era is brought vividly to live through letters, journals, interviews, lively descriptions, and stunning photography of the places and possessions left behind. 
This was a fascinating look at the daily lives of the many people who kept grand houses running for their wealthy owners. It covers how and why people entered into service, and how they might rise through the more menial jobs to jobs that had a bit more freedom and responsibility. So many facts in this book were amazing to me, and in many cases appalling. How much the servants lives were controlled, how little time they had to themselves. As noted in the subtitle this covers the Edwardian and Victorian periods.

The book described the levels within the servant classes and which servants interacted with the employers and which ones were supposed to be unseen by the residents of the house. It was funny at times (mostly due to quotes from actual servants) but also sobering to think of the demanding and demeaning lives that they led. The photographs of rooms used by servants, items of clothing, etc. were a bonus. This was the perfect mix of information and anecdotes about the subject and very readable.

Inevitably, I learned more about the world during that time from reading this book, such as types of transportation and more about life in country homes. I was especially interested in the last chapter on how World War I affected the serving classes and the owners of the grand homes and how it eventually decreased the availability of servants, as the servants began to see other opportunities opening up.

Reading this book whetted my appetite for a more in-depth book about this topic, so I am also planning to read another of my husband's books about this subject: Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge. He also has several books on country homes and I am going to have to read some of those, also.


Publisher:  National Trust, 2011.
Length:     187 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Nonfiction, Social History.
Source:     Borrowed from my husband.


Cath said...

I think a lot depended on the personalites of his lordship and ladyship but even the best places were demeaning and like you I've been shocked at reading about how little servants counted. I read somewhere that if a maid was dusting or something and one of the family came by the maid would have to turn to the wall so as not to be noticed by her betters. Incredible. And I was shocked at how much the maids were 'fair game' by the young men of the families. It's such a fascinating subect.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Tracy, I know I'd enjoy reading this book very much, especially since I also like reading nonfiction set around important events in world history. For example, WWI in the last chapter that you mention, and how people across cultures and communities might deal with it.

Margot Kinberg said...

This really does look fascinating, Tracy! I always like learning about different times and the way people lived in different eras. And it sounds as though there's some rich discussion about the different social classes and 'layers,' too. I'm glad you found it informative.

Rick Robinson said...

Interesting. As Cath said, so much depended on the attitudes and personalities of the Lord and Lady (especially the latter, I think) of the manor. I suppose this topic would be especially relevant in light of the Upstairs Downstairs series and Downton Abbey.

As an aside, have you watched The Dutchess of Duke Street?

TracyK said...

Cath, I am sure you are right about each place being different depending on the owners. I had read about maids having to turn toward the wall, but not much about how they might be treated by the men in the family. Although there were scenes in Gosford Park that alluded to that. When I read about people with such a hard life I feel silly to complain about the small problems in my own life.

TracyK said...

Prashant, I do think you would like this. I don't read a lot of nonfiction but last year I did read Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larsen and it was related to World War I and very interesting.

TracyK said...

Margot, the book was very interesting, and I hope the other books I plan to read on this and related subjects are just as readable and informative.

TracyK said...

Rick, I do get the impression that books like this were published because of the interest created by Downton Abbey most recently. We only watched two or three seasons of Downton Abbey, but did enjoy what we watched.

I had not even heard of The Dutchess of Duke Street until you mentioned it, but I looked it up and it sounds very good.

col2910 said...

It sounds quite interesting, but probably one I won't feel too bad about not reading myself.

TracyK said...

Col, it was interesting, but I know what you mean. There are lots of books I would like to read that I will never get around to. You have to pick and choose.