Turner, E. S. What the Butler Saw: Two Hundred and Fifty Years of the Servant Problem.

NY: St. Martin, 1962.

This is the very first book I read about the history of domestic service in England, following the introduction of Upstairs, Downstairs back in the ‘70s, and it’s still a very good survey, both informative and entertaining. Turner was a journalist, not an academic historian, but he had already produced a series of books on various aspects of upper-level British social history, from life at the Court of St. James to a history of the country’s military officer class.

He begins here in the mid-18th century, when the Victorian notion first took form of what a proper servant was supposed to be. (Before the Hanoverian era, master-servant relations were still essentially feudal.) Then he settles in to describe how the servant class was established, why it grew so large, and the sources of friction between those who issued orders (and considered it their natural, God-given right to do so) and those who took them (and generally weren’t as thankful for the opportunity as their employers expected them to be). Even though he frequently finds fault on both sides, it’s obvious that Turner’s sympathies lie with the under-paid and downtrodden servants, not with the overbearing and self-righteous folk they served. He goes into great detail about the roles and functions of the various sorts of servants, from underworked footman and deeply conservative housekeeper to the maid-of-all-work who put in sixteen hours a day, could not leave the house to post a letter without permission, and slept in a corner of the kitchen. He discusses the problem of maintaining the virtue of female servants (though if they got pregnant by the Young Master, it was automatically their fault), and the eventual replacement of menservants by women (who did more work and could be paid less), and how service in a grand house (with perhaps a hundred servants of all types) differed from service as the sole employee in a middle-class home (the latter was far lonelier). He also considers the difference between being in service in Britain and in the United States, where there was no tradition for such a thing and deference was, consequently, heavily looked down upon. The demise of live-in domestic service, of course, resulted from the confluence of rising wages, the availability of industrial and commercial jobs for young women, the introduction of labor-saving home technology, and the complete shaking-up the country was given by the Great War. The author’s literate but readable style depends heavily on anecdotes to illustrate the points he makes, mostly taken from contemporary works, so the reader will likely come away with a list of further reading.

Published in: on 19 December 2011 at 7:14 am  Leave a Comment  
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