Thursday, 20 March 2014


We know all about servants, don't we. People had them in the past, but we don't, because we're modern and aware. (And housework has become far less labour-intensive.) So why the fascination with Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey? Servants cast a long shadow over our lives - perhaps because when they'd gone, we continued to try and live as if they were still there. Middle-class households prepared elaborate meals in a small kitchen, passed them through a serving hatch, and then sat down to eat. (Working class families sensibly cooked and ate in the kitchen - and sewed and did homework there too.) We decanted vegetables into serving dishes as if they were going to be carried along miles of cold passages from a basement kitchen. (The food must always have been tepid.) And then we all said "Oh, forget it!" and began to live more simply. I hope.

When I re-read those first [books] I’m amazed at the number of servants drifting about. And nobody is really doing any work; they’re always having tea on the lawn… (Agatha Christie, The Writer, 1966)

You can’t get the good old-fashioned kind of servant any more. (Agatha Christie,  Sparkling Cyanide)

"We cannot save our servants trouble; we cannot insist on their making their work easy for themselves; but we can tell them that it would be wiser were they to help themselves." (Mrs Panton, From Kitchen to Garrett) She means that the cook should lay the kitchen fire before going to bed, so that in the morning she only has to light it.

A country house like Downton Abbey was more like a hotel than a house. The family were constantly entertaining guests. Also, there were no supermarkets. Food was raised or grown on the "home farm" or in kitchen gardens, and cooked in the kitchens. A huge staff of servants was necessary. Before self-consuming wicks and whale-oil lamps servants were constantly on hand to "snuff" the candles (to trim the wicks). Candles were of course the only source of light. Likewise, open fires were the only source of heat, and it was the servants' job to carry the fuel, lay the fires, keep them lit, and clean the grate.

Women would ask a male guest to ring for the servant to put coal on the fire. Because SHE couldn’t do it, and HE couldn’t do it, and it was so kind of him to save her the trouble of pulling a bell pull… (OK, the coal might have dirtied her hands or clothes). In George Gissing's New Grub Street, Marian is embarrassed when Milvain puts coal on the fire - these shabby genteel characters are still trying to live as if they were middle class. (She is also mortified because she knows her father has deliberately let the fire die down to save fuel.)

"He took the tongs and carefully disposed small pieces of coal upon the glow that remained. Marian stood apart with a feeling of shame and annoyance. But... after all this vulgar necessity made the beginning of the conversation easier." George Gissing, New Grub Street

When hot water for a bath was heated in the kitchen and brought up to your bedroom by hand, a servant carried it. If you needed a servant, you rang a bell - for instance, to conduct a visitor through mazes of passages from your sitting room to the front door.

"Don't ring - I'll let myself out." (Enter a Murderer, Ngaio Marsh)

This detective story was written in the 30s. The speaker, Nigel, is visiting his friend, Felix, in his small flat. But Felix still rings for his manservant to show Nigel out (the few steps to the front door - Nigel can hardly get lost. In this era, too, menservants and maids prepared a bath for their masters and mistresses - by turning on a tap. Lift boys pressed lift buttons. When did it occur to people that they could see out their own visitors, run their own baths and operate their own lifts?

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