Maloney, Alison. Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants.

NY: St Martin, 2011.

When Upstairs, Downstairs hit the big time back in the 1970s, there was a rediscovery of original 19th- and early 20th-century written memoirs by those who had spent all or much of their lives in domestic service. With the advent more recently of Downton Abbey, it happened again.

However, with my longstanding interest in social history, I’ve been reading those original sources for years, as well as the sociological studies based on them. (Happily, most of the old memoirs are now available as free PDF downloads, being long out of copyright.)

I don’t know the author’s background, but there’s really nothing here that’s original. For an experienced reader, there’s not much that’s new, either. Maloney revisits well-trodden ground, including quoting from Pamela Horn and other relevant academics, in addition to the autobiographies. Still, she does a pretty good job of it, covering the structure of the middle-class and upper-class household, the conditions under which servants worked just before the Great War and the pittance they could expect to be paid for their sixteen hours or more a day, the typical daily cycle of cleaning and cooking and serving meals, the methods used in a world where labor was cheaper than labor-saving devices, relations between those on either side of the green baize door, the always strict rules and codes of conduct to which servants were expected to adhere (and what could happen to them if they didn’t), the coercive use of religion to maintain separation of the classes, and the rare occasions of recreation and entertainment they might enjoy. Not every mistress of a big house was a tyrant, but a very large proportion of them were — especially those in the striving middle class whose antecedents weren’t that far above the laborers themselves. By and large, this would be a worthwhile survey for the beginner to the subject and there’s a useful bibliography for further reading — because all those sources from which Maloney lifts most of her material are where you will actually learn what this sort of life was like.

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Published in: on 2 March 2015 at 6:36 am  Leave a Comment  
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