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Not in Front of the Servants: A True Portrait of Upstairs, Downstairs Life (National Trust classics)

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Whole armies of butlers, cooks and housemaids were employed in the great households of Victorian and Edwardian England. This book is a nostalgic study of this vanished world, recreated through interviews, memoirs and letters. The author discusses different households including the estate of the Duke of Portland, who employed more than 30 kitchen staff at Welbeck Abbey and Whole armies of butlers, cooks and housemaids were employed in the great households of Victorian and Edwardian England. This book is a nostalgic study of this vanished world, recreated through interviews, memoirs and letters. The author discusses different households including the estate of the Duke of Portland, who employed more than 30 kitchen staff at Welbeck Abbey and another 32 indoor servants. At the other end of the scale, no respectable villa in the suburbs was without its maid or maids. Domestic service thrived because economic necessity forced larger poor families to put their children into service as one of the few means of feeding and clothing them.


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Whole armies of butlers, cooks and housemaids were employed in the great households of Victorian and Edwardian England. This book is a nostalgic study of this vanished world, recreated through interviews, memoirs and letters. The author discusses different households including the estate of the Duke of Portland, who employed more than 30 kitchen staff at Welbeck Abbey and Whole armies of butlers, cooks and housemaids were employed in the great households of Victorian and Edwardian England. This book is a nostalgic study of this vanished world, recreated through interviews, memoirs and letters. The author discusses different households including the estate of the Duke of Portland, who employed more than 30 kitchen staff at Welbeck Abbey and another 32 indoor servants. At the other end of the scale, no respectable villa in the suburbs was without its maid or maids. Domestic service thrived because economic necessity forced larger poor families to put their children into service as one of the few means of feeding and clothing them.

30 review for Not in Front of the Servants: A True Portrait of Upstairs, Downstairs Life (National Trust classics)

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jenn

    Things I thought while reading this book: Damn, I'm lazy NO WAY Whut? I'm so lazy No, they didn't! Stupid rich people God, I'm lazy Things I thought while reading this book: Damn, I'm lazy NO WAY Whut? I'm so lazy No, they didn't! Stupid rich people God, I'm lazy

  2. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    The Great Age of Servants is long, long gone, but we are still morbidly fascinated by it. Look at the success of Downton Abbey, and before that Upstairs, Downstairs, which is referenced in this book's title. Needless to say, Downton is rose-tinted in its view of the lives of servants and their relationships with their masters, though perhaps not as much as we might suppose. After all, it concerns a big house in the early 20th century. If you had to be a servant, you would choose to work at this The Great Age of Servants is long, long gone, but we are still morbidly fascinated by it. Look at the success of Downton Abbey, and before that Upstairs, Downstairs, which is referenced in this book's title. Needless to say, Downton is rose-tinted in its view of the lives of servants and their relationships with their masters, though perhaps not as much as we might suppose. After all, it concerns a big house in the early 20th century. If you had to be a servant, you would choose to work at this time, and in this sort of place. Conditions and pay for servants improved rapidly in the inter-war period, as a severe shortage drove employers to offer increasingly good money and (relatively) easy terms. And it was nearly always better to work in a big house than in a small one, especially a middle-class suburban home where the put-upon "maid of all work" suffered under an impossible workload and unrealistic expectations. But let's rewind to the 19th century, the real Great Age of Servants. One of this book's most shocking ideas, which the author comes back to a few times, is that there was less difference between being a servant and being a slave than we might like to think. Free time was exceptionally limited - for many servants, going to church on a Sunday was the only time they were not working. If you got an afternoon off per week, you were very lucky. Your employer may not legally have owned you - you could walk away, but without a reference (a "character") you could never work again. There was nothing to stop a malicious or unreasonable employer refusing to give a character. If you were young, you were kept away from the opposite sex. You probably didn't have your own room: sometimes not even your own bed. The work was backbreaking, and hours were long. You were constantly expected to be at your employer's beck and call. You weren't really regarded as a human being at all: woe betide the parlourmaid who allowed herself to smile if she heard something funny in the drawing room. Yet people were grateful for these jobs, because there was a roof over their heads and they didn't have to worry where the next meal was coming from. Untold millions of people lived these sort of lives, many from a very tender age, and some of them even managed to whistle a tune while they scrubbed stone flagstones or dusted the hundreds of tiny ornaments, figurines and other kitschy bric-a-brac beloved of the Victorians. Of course they couldn't whistle if a master or mistress was in earshot. I have never really tried to imagine what these lives might have been like. Frank Victor Dawes, whose mother was in service, allows us to begin to imagine it, and it is awful, not just by our modern standards, but by any human standards. But this is not an angry book - it's not written in the way I'm writing this, but calmly and factually, with empathy, but not wearing its heart on its sleeve. In this way, it is itself very English. The average Victorian master or mistress comes across badly. While generally believing that it was important for their servants' spiritual welfare that they attended church every Sunday, they showed scant concern for their employees' physical or emotional well-being. As labour-saving devices and other mod cons came into wider use, many employers did not invest in them because, after all, they had servants. Why install running water when you had a servant to carry your hot bath water up two flights of stairs? Servants were unable to organise themselves effectively into unions, and though there were parliamentary efforts to improve their lot from time to time, they foundered because the whole system of servants was just too damn convenient for the employer class. Efforts to regulate the profession, even in the early 20th century, were greeted with horror as an intrusion into the domestic sphere. Though it doesn't set out to be, this is a damning book. There is a kind of nostalgia in the popularity of Downton Abbey and its ilk, a feeling that life was somehow easier, more graceful and happier when everyone knew their place in the system and took pride in fulfilling their God-given function. This book will disabuse anyone of such notions. For most servants, life was tough, and tough in a way it's hard for us to understand today. The idea of masters and mistresses who were able to live in such proximity to their servants and yet fail to acknowledge their humanity shouldn't fill us with a warm cosy glow.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sarai

    If you have ever wondered what it was like to be a servant in the late 1800s through early 1900s, this book will answer a lot fo questions for you. The author has actual excerpts from interviews with servants who worked during that time period, and the book also covers such matters as uniforms, pay, living conditions, and interactions between servants and their "betters." Very interesting stuff. If you have ever wondered what it was like to be a servant in the late 1800s through early 1900s, this book will answer a lot fo questions for you. The author has actual excerpts from interviews with servants who worked during that time period, and the book also covers such matters as uniforms, pay, living conditions, and interactions between servants and their "betters." Very interesting stuff.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Michael Smith

    Even after watching Upstairs Downstairs on TV in the ’70s, and then seeing the more recent (and more realistic) Gosford Park, not to mention Downton Abbey, there still is a tendency to view the 19th century English dependence on domestic servants as “quaint.” Dawes, an experienced television journalist, is himself the grandson of a career domestic, and as he makes clear, the life of most of those in service was far more than simply hard work. Servants -- especially those at the bottom of the pec Even after watching Upstairs Downstairs on TV in the ’70s, and then seeing the more recent (and more realistic) Gosford Park, not to mention Downton Abbey, there still is a tendency to view the 19th century English dependence on domestic servants as “quaint.” Dawes, an experienced television journalist, is himself the grandson of a career domestic, and as he makes clear, the life of most of those in service was far more than simply hard work. Servants -- especially those at the bottom of the pecking order, like scullery maids and “maids of all work” -- were grossly underpaid, often worked eighteen hours a day, could be fired at a moment’s notice, and were generally treated by their employers as not quite human. A very large percentage of domestics were girls under twelve years of age. And yet the middle and upper classes constantly harped on the “servant problem” and their inability to get “good” servants. Their blindness to social inequity was not unlike the insistence of many slaveholders that their chattels were loyal out of love of the family they served! (It rather amazes me that there was never a bloody class revolution in Britain. . . .) Dawes does an excellent job detailing the service system with its layers of controls, how servants survived, the hierarchy imposed even below stairs (everyone has to feel superior to someone), hiring and firing practices, how those in service were kept in line by Church of England propaganda, and what was likely to happen to young women who resisted the advances of male members of the household. Dawes depends heavily on reminiscences of and correspondence from those who were servants in their youth, or whose parents were, because forty years ago there still of lot of such people alive in Britain. This book couldn’t be written today. There are quite a few excellent period illustrations, too.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Erika

    A fascinating and well written look at the "Upstairs, Downstairs" culture of the English domestic service during the years 1850 to 1939. the author uses historical references, anecdotes from the time as well as correspondence with surviving members of the serving class of the time to bring to life what it was like to live and work in those times. It's a way of life I don't think anyone in our times or culture can fully understand. Servants lived and worked in conditions appalling close to slavery, A fascinating and well written look at the "Upstairs, Downstairs" culture of the English domestic service during the years 1850 to 1939. the author uses historical references, anecdotes from the time as well as correspondence with surviving members of the serving class of the time to bring to life what it was like to live and work in those times. It's a way of life I don't think anyone in our times or culture can fully understand. Servants lived and worked in conditions appalling close to slavery, were treated as a separate species almost, not fully human, and yet they were better off than many of their contemporaries and many found a level of dignity and even social standing among their peers with their own pecking order and status levels. The whole thing was amazingly complex and only worked as long as everyone accepted that this was the way it was supposed to be. Which changed after the two World Wars.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Barbara Ab

    I was a fan of Downton Abbey , but before of that I fell in love with Downstairs Upstairs (an old outstanding British TV series portraying the lives of the servants and their upper-class employers). You can watch it on YouTube. So when a friend suggested this book I couldn’t help reading it. It is a serious research based on the testimonials of people who worked as servants nearly between 1890 and 1930 (the most). Plus a summary of the government studies on the situation of lack of servants after I was a fan of Downton Abbey , but before of that I fell in love with Downstairs Upstairs (an old outstanding British TV series portraying the lives of the servants and their upper-class employers). You can watch it on YouTube. So when a friend suggested this book I couldn’t help reading it. It is a serious research based on the testimonials of people who worked as servants nearly between 1890 and 1930 (the most). Plus a summary of the government studies on the situation of lack of servants after the WWI. Nonetheless have found the book a bit poor as for information, it s portraits a world that was not as romantic as it is depicted in several TV series.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    This was a very interesting history about the lives and duties of English servants in the Victorian and Edwardian eras in England. It covers everything from what they wore to how they ate, wages, daily duties an interaction with each other and the people they served. Much of this did not come as a big surprise after all the reading I've done about Victorian England, but it brought it all together in one neat package. This was a very interesting history about the lives and duties of English servants in the Victorian and Edwardian eras in England. It covers everything from what they wore to how they ate, wages, daily duties an interaction with each other and the people they served. Much of this did not come as a big surprise after all the reading I've done about Victorian England, but it brought it all together in one neat package.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Kathy Thurman

    The book contained many of the same quotes and references that I've seen in other books, but still a good read. The book contained many of the same quotes and references that I've seen in other books, but still a good read.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Wendy

    For anyone who wants to know more about being a servant, having a servant in the nineteenth century - this is the book. Loved it, easy to read, informative.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lorna Sixsmith

    Enjoyed this - great insight into the lives of former servants, mostly from letters from people who lived and worked below stairs.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    I loved this book (surprising, I know) and learned a lot. I love this style of non-fiction (interviews and letters) though it is a bit dense and thus takes longer to finish. But well worth it.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Cathy

    This gives a lot more detail on what life was really like for english servants. It was much worse than portrayed on shows like downton abbey.

  13. 5 out of 5

    A.J.

    Based on a lot of letters from contributors, this book gives a fair amount of insight into the day-to-day life of domestic servants from the Edwardian to post-Second World War period. I found it a bit heavy-going at times, and not as entertaining as it might have been.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Glenda

    I made it half-way through and couldn't keep going. It was interesting to learn about the lives of servants in England through the letters the author obtained. But it didn't hold my interest enough to finish. I made it half-way through and couldn't keep going. It was interesting to learn about the lives of servants in England through the letters the author obtained. But it didn't hold my interest enough to finish.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

    This was fasinating. I always loved the upstairs/downstairs series on PBS and this explained so much of what was going on. Very well reasearched although the author did reuse many references and quotes.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    Too much detail for y interest level.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Karin

  18. 5 out of 5

    McGee Magoo

  19. 5 out of 5

    Camilla

  20. 4 out of 5

    Rachael

  21. 5 out of 5

    Florence

  22. 4 out of 5

    Diana G Rodriguez

  23. 5 out of 5

    Anyu

  24. 5 out of 5

    Robin

  25. 4 out of 5

    Pam Davis

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dawn Livingston

  27. 5 out of 5

    V

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sean Mcdaniel

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jon Sullivan

  30. 4 out of 5

    Cerys

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