Behind the Green Baize Door

Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times BY Lucy Lethbridge. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 400 pages. $27.
Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury BY Alison Light. Bloomsbury Press. Paperback, 400 pages. $20.

The cover of Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times The cover of Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury

The wish to be taken care of or looked after past the childhood years, to have our basic needs administered to without great exertion on our part, is not one, or so it seems to me, that is much addressed outside of the therapist’s office—or, perchance, the rehab culture, where such primal longings get articulated by way of a dependence on drugs and alcohol. For the rest of us, who secretly yearn to have someone to help us lace up our shoes in the morning, like Julian English does in John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra—or, more generally, to have our meals prepared for us and then affably served—there are the gratifications of Downton Abbey. I suspect that the runaway success of this series, like Upstairs, Downstairs three decades before it (created by two actresses, Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who were themselves the offspring of former domestics) and much of Masterpiece Theatre’s offerings, resides less with the show’s sumptuous trappings or ambivalent attitude toward money—as a recent New York Times article by Chrystia Freeland argued—than with the way it allows us to peer in on a time and place when imperious adults were treated like dependent children.

I have been thinking about our fascination with the British upper classes and their relationship with their domestics not so much because I myself have warmed to Downton Abbey, but because I not long ago found myself reading two books on what Virginia Woolf referred to as “the question of Nelly”—also known as the servant problem. (Nelly Boxall worked as Woolf’s cook for eighteen years, ten of them as her sole live-in servant.) The recently published Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge, offers a sociological overview, making use of memoirs, extracts from servants’ diaries and letters, and contemporary accounts. Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury is more a work of literary investigation and analysis. Both books are unusually well-written and alert to the nuances of their respective subjects, suggesting the ways in which servants were both tirelessly kept in their place and yet often transcended it, standing in for figures other than themselves.

In 1838, according to yet a third book, Kate Hubbard’s Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household, published in 2012, Sarah Lyttelton, lady of the bedchamber to a newly anointed and very young Queen Victoria, noted that the royal kitchen made use of no fewer than twenty-four cooks. By 1901, the year in which Servants properly begins, the idea of a country estate “supported by farms, orchards, gardens and well-stocked lakes” and equipped with a populous staff had trickled down and taken firm hold of the nostalgic English imagination, while the keeping of servants was in itself no longer considered an indication of wealth. Indeed, “domestic service was the single largest occupation in Edwardian Britain,” Lethbridge informs us: “Of the four million women in the British work-force, a million and a half worked as servants, a majority of them as single-handed maids in small households.” Although an Edwardian middle-class family still counted on—and, more important, given the dismally low wages servants were paid, could afford “without conspicuous struggle”—a staff consisting of a butler, two maids, a cook, and a governess or nanny, there were still large houses in the country that operated on a scale beyond the scope of these reduced arrangements, requiring second footmen and scullery maids, not to mention copious quantities of food. One such household “got through seventy-seven eggs in five days,” while “the Marquess of Ailesbury’s cook produced breakfasts every day that included marbled rabbit, brawn, pigs’ feet and galantine.”

Servants is chockablock with incredulous-making details about the exploitative conditions in which household help lived and worked (these included cramped, chilly, and spartan sleeping quarters, endless hours, and the overriding assumption of inferiority), as well as anecdotes of supreme helplessness on the part of the coddled rich, such as the following: “Lord Curzon, whose intellect was regarded as one of the glories of the Empire, was so baffled by the challenge of opening a window in the bedroom of the country house in which he was staying (no servants being available so late at night), that he simply picked up a log from the grate and smashed the glass.” Even after World War II, when homes had begun to be wired for electricity despite the gentry’s insistence on the vulgarity of such improvements and the ideal of the 1950s self-contained (and servantless) housewife was hoving into view, so otherwise gifted a chap as Winston Churchill was unable, according to his valet John Gibson, to dress himself without assistance: “He was social gentry. . . . He sat there like a dummy and you dressed him.” As easy as it is to snicker at such colossal ineptitude on the part of the cultural elite, it is also intriguing to consider how this kind of infantilizing treatment might have facilitated their performance in demanding grown-up roles—like someone playing with rubber ducks in the bath before going out to lead men in a military campaign.

Servants takes the reader from the days of Welbeck Abbey, the home of the eccentric and reclusive Duke of Portland, where upper servants had their own underservants to wait on them, to the gradual erosion of the older forms of domestic service and on up through the new world of do-it-yourself home comforts as devised by technology and a greater show of equality between employer and servant. This world, ushered in with the 1950s, shunned the “badge of servitude” that was conveyed by uniforms, surreal daily routines (whether it meant Ladyships who couldn’t sleep with creases on a pillowcase or Ladyships who insisted on cutting their boiled eggs with a letter opener), and a feudal attitude that took no more cognizance of domestics than it did of the furniture. “It was in the best houses considered quite unnecessary (in fact poor form),” Lethbridge notes, “for servants to knock before entering a room. This was partly because they lived in such everyday familiarity with the family that there was nothing to hide from them and partly because . . . their presence made no difference whatsoever to whatever was being said or going on.”

G. K. Chesterton believed that the subject of servants was met with “a sort of silence and embarrassment” by the middle class, but this isn’t to say that there weren’t always people, from Edwardian times on, who worried about and championed the welfare of domestics—whether it was Elizabeth Banks, a journalist from New Jersey “who posed as a housemaid for a series of undercover articles in the late 1890s on London life”; social reformers like Thomas Barnardo, who started homes for vagrant children; or Mrs. Nassau Senior, who established the MABYS (Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants) in 1875.

One of those who fretted openly, sometimes sympathetically and frequently viciously, about the inner lives of her servants was Virginia Woolf. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was enough a man of his blinkered times to look with suspicion on modernization, wondering “why he should install a hot water system in his London house when he could always employ two or three girls to carry the bath water up and down stairs as required.” Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, both relied on servants as a matter of course, as did other members of the bohemian Bloomsbury set, but Vanessa’s attitude was more firmly classist in the manner of a benign but aloof Victorian matron, “waving from a train to women working in the fields.” Virginia, meanwhile, who once described herself as “one of those who are hampered by the psychological hindrance of owning capital,” couldn’t quite make up her mind how she felt about the fact of having people wait on her—“It is much to be regretted that no lives of maids,” she wrote in a footnote to Three Guineas, in 1939, “from which a more fully documented account could be constructed, are to be found in the Dictionary of National Biography”—or even what she felt about the work they did. “Does housekeeping interest you at all?” she wrote to Violet Dickinson. “I think it really ought to be just as good as writing, and I never see . . . where the separation between the two comes in.” (None of this, it must be said, moved her or the penny-pinching Leonard to pay their various chars more than a pittance.)

Despite her youthful conviction that servants “made everything pompous and heavy-footed,” Woolf didn’t dream of doing without them. While still living as a single woman with her brother Adrian at 29 Fitzroy Square, Virginia had leaned on the motherly ministrations of Sophie Farrell, who had cooked for her father’s large household at 24 Hyde Park Gate for eighteen years and whose opinion she relied on when she went looking for a place of her own in 1907: “Sophie approves of it in every particular,” she noted in another letter to Dickinson. When Woolf had a breakdown in the spring and summer of 1910 and went into a private nursing home where her habit of self-starvation was met with deliberate overfeeding, Sophie was on hand to see that her charge ate properly. But it was with the two employees who worked for her when she was married—Lottie Hope and especially Nelly (whom she described, variously, as “poor dear Nelly” and as a “mongrel,” exhibiting a “timid spiteful servant mind”)—that Virginia became truly and, it could be argued, irrationally involved, never able to make up her mind as to who was calling the shots and who was more deserving of commiseration. What is clear, and entirely to her credit, is that she took her servants less for granted than did most of her peers, allowing them room in her head and space (even if often begrudging) in her heart.

There’s much to think about in both these books—not least the particularly British style of treating domestics, both less casually sadistic and less casually amorous than, say, white Americans’ attitude toward black slaves. Indeed, I suspect that one of the reasons American audiences delight in the travails and triumphs of the gaggle of domestics on Downton Abbey is out of a sense of superiority that the “servant problem” in such acute, institutionalized form isn’t ours. Much as we may envy them all that pampering, we also like to look down our noses at it as going against the democratic and independent Yankee ethos. To this point it’s worth noting that Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique referred precisely to “the servant problem” as one of the besetting woes of the upper-middle-class housewives she was looking to liberate, and that our habit of befriending those who clean our kitchens and bathrooms and look after our children can’t disguise the fact that we value their hourly labor less than we value a twenty-minute haircut and that we live largely in ignorance of their thoughts and feelings.

Daphne Merkin’s The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Importance of Handbags, and Other Cultural Inquiries will be published in September by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.