Servant tourism: how TV made us fetishise 'below stairs' culture
British stately homes and hotels are cashing in on our fascination with scullery maids and butlers. Is it because we love Sunday night drama, or do we just want to understand the jobs our ancestors did?
Mon 31 Oct 2016 17.25 GMT Last modified on Tue 19 Dec 2017 20.59 GMT
ITV’s big autumn hit Victoria featured an impossibly pretty Queen Vic, a brooding Albert and plenty of gorgeous sets and costumes. But unlike most other depictions of royalty on screen – including Peter Morgan’s Elizabeth II spectacular The Crown, which launches on Netflix this week – below stairs in Victoria featured as heavily as the political machinations in the drawing room.
Critics, most of whom lauded the show, raised eyebrows at the love-in between the monarch and her minions. One said it “felt more obligatory than it did organic”.
Daisy Goodwin, the creator of the show, insists the servants’ quarters were not added to keep focus groups or producers happy. “It was entirely my decision to add a below-stairs plot,” she says. “I keep hearing people say that the ITV executives forced me into it. Not at all. In fact, I had to slightly fight to keep the servants, because their storylines kept being cut back. I thought from the beginning that you need to have a counterpoint to what is going on upstairs.”
The accusations are understandable. Downton Abbey, which gave as much weight to the butlers, footmen and maids as to the aristocrats they served, was one of this decade’s biggest hit, both in the UK and the US.
A bit of spice behind the green baize door, mixed with some gentle class tension, appears to be a foolproof formula for TV gold, and one that stretches back to the early 1970s with ITV’s .
Yet the trend for fetishising servant culture has spread beyond the small screen; the National Trust and English Heritage – both of which reported record visitor numbers last year – are investing heavily in highlighting the servants’ quarters in many of their properties, while the gift shops increasingly reflect our fascination with domestic service over aristocratic lifestyles.
Visit Blenheim Palace, Sir John Vanbrugh’s masterpiece in the Cotswolds, and you can pick up a wide selection from the Below Stairs product range, including the butler’s scented candle with notes of cedarwood, frankincense and citrus. It has the aroma, the box explains, of “waxed wooden floors and a freshly laid fire in the butler’s pantry”. If that doesn’t take your fancy, there’s a House Maid’s lampshade brush, or perhaps the Valet’s clothes brush made from scented pearwood and is “suitable for cashmere”.
This autumn, our servant obsession appears to have moved up another gear. The Sir John Soane Museum in London opened a Below Stairs exhibition in September, featuring artwork created by modern designers as a response to the museum’s recently restored Regency kitchens.
The Pig at Combe, a new boutique hotel in Devon, has just opened a private dining room for 14 people in the original Georgian kitchen, which features a range, cast-iron pans hanging from the wall and flagstones on the floor. The hotel pitches the room as a “below-stairs experience” featuring Mrs Beeton’s recipes – though you would struggle to find quinoa, one of the ingredients on the menu, in her guide to household management.
Daisy Goodwin says she is not surprised consumers want to explore life below stairs. “There’s a couple of things going on. There is a revisionist view of history; it’s political correctness, possibly,” she says. “But there is also people’s genuine interest. I am always obsessed with the smell of the past. Nothing takes you faster back to the 19th century than seeing how hard it was to do your laundry, or how women had to deal with their periods.”
There is another reason why the historical pendulum has swung from the drawing room to the scullery: consumers are statistically more likely to have domestic servants than great landlords in their ancestry. At a peak before the first world war, there were an estimated 1.5 million people in domestic service in Britain, compared with 560 members of the House of Lords – and we are more aware than ever, thanks to the glut of genealogy websites and historical records online, which category we fall into.
This is certainly true for the visitors at Audley End, a fabulous Jacobean property in Essex, owned and run by English Heritage. Here you can admire a Holbein, a Hilliard miniature or a Canaletto, as well as the Robert Adam library in the main house. But the bigger crowds can be found in the servants’ wing, which includes a laundry, where children are allowed to turn the mangle, and a kitchen, from where the smell of bread is emanating and on the day I visit “Mrs Crocombe” issuing orders and criticising “Sylvia”, the second kitchen maid, for her slow apple peeling. Of course, both are actors. There are five in the house, all playing servants from the year 1881 and refusing to come out of character.
Tess Askew, 80, is visiting as part of the group from the Swanton Morley WI in Norfolk and is trying to engage Mrs Crocombe in a discussion about a microwave. The cook, in turn, pretends to be baffled about this “modern appliance” – an act that tickles the tourists.
Askew says the appeal of touring the old laundry and kitchens is partly seeing the lovely shelves of copper pots and jelly moulds, and partly “being housewives – we’re interested in how they used to do it”.
“There is a retro-chic about housework,” says Lucy Lethbridge, the historian and author of Servants: A Downstairs View of 20th-Century Britain, “usually among people who don’t have to do it very much. If you really have to clean, you don’t have much sentimentality about using lemon juice on your windows, or making your own beeswax polish.”
Many of the visitors at Audley End have researched their own family histories. Don Crouch, 58, a retired civil servant from St Albans, who is visiting with his wife and a friend, says: “A lot of people look back at their ancestors and have more connection with downstairs than upstairs life. Even fairly wealthy middle-class people are not well heeled enough to relate to upstairs life.”
His wife, Judith, has researched her family back to the 1780s and discovered her ancestors were drovers, labourers and sawyers. “I do find the class thing very interesting. I come from working-class stock. Although I maybe have gone up a little bit in the world, this,” she says, pointing to Mrs Crocombe, “is more what I would have experienced if I had been around then.” She works for the V&A, but is admiring the fine porcelain pie dishes.
Some historians, however, worry that though the reconstructions of servants’ lives here and at other stately homes are well researched, they can mislead modern audiences.
Dr Lucy Delap, a Cambridge lecturer whose specialism is domestic service, says that in the great houses – be they the Buckingham Palace of ITV’s Victoria or the real-life Audley End – the servants “were quite well paid, and their conditions were quite easy when compared to the majority of servants working in one- and two-person households. They didn’t have a green baize door and time off in the afternoon, and didn’t have rustic-looking wheelbarrows to move apples around in.”
Delap is a fan of Audley End and other heritage days where you can pick up the dolly or iron and feel the weight of a pre-electric domestic appliance, but too often people fail to realise how back-breaking the work was. “Being a servant was all about getting up early, working until midnight and getting chilblains,” says Delap. “People don’t think of it in those terms, because of the likes of Downton and Victoria. These romantic depictions of domestic service really efface the idea that this is a site of precarious, exploitative labour.”
I ask Askew if, born a century earlier, she would prefer to have been a member of the domestic staff or one of the Braybrookes, the aristocratic family who owned Audley End. “I’d like to think I’d be down here with what was really going on. I wouldn’t like to be up there with people curtseying to me. I like this kind of life,” she says.Some historians suggest below-stairs life is possibly back in fashion because it represents a golden era compared with today’s uncertainties. Lethbridge says: “It is an age, seen through rose-tinted spectacles, when we imagine the classes mixed in a paternalistic, co-dependent pyramid. The leisured class were at the top, supported by the labour of those at the bottom, who were in turn looked after. Maybe there is something in that highly regulated certainty that is attractive to us now.”
Most people do not, of course, connect the domestic servants of Victoria or Downton with today’s equivalent: the eastern European cleaner with no paid holidays, or the Deliveroo-rider handing over your evening meal. Or, for that matter, staff in large country houses – now often a hotel.
The most famous of these is Cliveden House, the Italianate pile owned by the Astor family and scene of legendary parties and the Profumo scandal. It is now owned by the National Trust but leased to one of Britain’s smartest hotels, which employs 150 staff to service the 48 rooms. If you book The Butler Did It break – which starts at £350 per night, per person – you can enjoy a private tour with the house butler, 53-year-old Michael Chaloner. Disappointingly, he stopped wearing tails a few years ago, but he is full of stories of famous guests, including Charlie Chaplin and Michael Jackson, as he shows you around the bits of the house that are usually off limits. This includes the amazing view from the roof, the Lady Astor suite (yours for £1,200 a night) and the below-stairs area.
Here, the historic bells used to summon staff are mere decoration. Most of the service corridors and former servants’ sitting rooms are turned over to the operations of a fully functioning modern hotel, with waiters and chefs scurrying past the stacks of firewood used in the great hall, and unused foldaway beds.
“A lot of the Americans don’t like seeing this bit,” Chaloner says. “But a lot of Brits do.” Below stairs, as Lethbridge points out, is so often a reminder of class, something “rotted deeply into our national psyche and our sense of ourselves”.
Chaloner adds: “I think people care about the staff a little bit more nowadays. When I first came here in the early 90s, people came here for their £1,500 lunches, the fattest cigars, and the most expensive brandies. They didn’t care two hoots about the people serving them. But now people are interested in the people who work in the hotel. The staff are part of the deal.”
In the lobby of the hotel, there is a small selection of merchandise on sale, including the DVD of Scandal, the film of the Profumo affair; The Lady’s Maid: My Life in Service by Rosina Harrison, a former maid of Nancy Astor; and scented candles. I tell him I’m disappointed there isn’t a butler version.
“What would it smell of? Boiled cabbage, old socks and body odour?” he laughs. “I am under no illusions about how grim life was below stairs back then.”
Being a servant was all about getting up early, working until midnight and getting chilblains
• This article was amended on 1 November 2016. An earlier version said the original 1970s series of Upstairs Downstairs was broadcast by the BBC. It was made by LWT and shown on ITV.
Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs, BBC Two, review
Michael Pilgrim reviews Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs, Dr Pamela Cox' new BBC Two series exploring the lives of servants.
4 out of 5 stars
By Michael Pilgrim10:00PM BST 28 Sep 2012
Dr Pamela Cox explores the secret history of servants at the beginning of the 20th Century for her new BBC Two series, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs.
Dr Pamela Cox explores the secret history of servants at the beginning of the 20th Century for her new BBC Two series, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs. Photo: BBC
The prodigious 19th-century letter writer Jane Carlyle had a frightful time with her servants. She went through 34 in 32 years. Hardly surprising since they were that breed of hired help known as the maid of all work, the sole domestic in a middle-class household.
One such, Mary, had the misfortune to give birth in a back room of Jane’s Chelsea house. Feet away, Jane’s husband Thomas Carlyle was busy taking after-dinner tea, the great essayist seemingly unperturbed.
This was not good. As Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs (BBC Two) explained, Mrs Carlyle was seen to have failed to keep her employee on the path to righteousness. There was no choice. Mary had to go.
Servants was presented by the academic Dr Pamela Cox. Given that Cox’s grandmothers were in service and that she teaches at Essex – a university not renowned for its right-leaning views – one might have expected a rant. Certainly, the picture painted was far from the gentle Farrow & Ball ambience of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, but it was not without affection.
Cox started her three-parter at Erddig, North Wales. In the 19th century, the estate employed 45 staff labouring for 17 hours a day. They had to shift three tons of coal a week, enough for 51 fireplaces and five ovens. Six hundred items of clothing were laundered a week and 60 pairs of boots polished daily. A laundry maid could be paid as little as £700 a year – at today’s prices.
The work was meticulous, repetitive and exhausting. Which makes you think that they have a secret underground room at Downton full of whirring German white goods doing all the work. Little else explains why the staff never look tired or sweaty.
None the less, Erdigg represented the paternalistic end of domestic service. Its owners hung what were known as loyalty portraits of their staff in a hall. The photos were charming, but the typed poems pasted beside them sounded more the sort of thing you’d write about a beloved puppy, than about the people who starched your shirt and blacked your footwear.
Though enlightened enough to acknowledge the staff, the family were witheringly dismissive of those who displeased them, as the clunky verses for Mrs Hale, a ladies maid, made clear: “Black was her dress, her face austere, and when she for Brighton did leave, no one here a sigh did heave.” Not what you’d call a positive reference for a future master, even if it does rhyme.
It wasn’t just a question of us and them. Servants themselves were graded into a complex hierarchy, governed by arcane rules, presided over by the butler, cook and housekeeper, the last a portly, dragonish figure who only had to jangle her keys to evoke fear in low-ranking hall boys.
The sense of benevolent orderliness, of people content in their allotted station, is, of course, a cosy Victorian fabrication, just like the conventions of Christmas. It is a myth that even now bathes us in warm nostalgia and persuades us to buy National Trust tea-towels. Cox’s cheerful pursuit for her subject suggested she even enjoyed the myth a bit herself, despite better intentions.
"Below Stairs" is a study of servant portraiture in Britain and is illustrated with works by Hogarth, Gainsborough and Stubbs. Continuing the examination of traditional domestic life explored in the films "Gosford Park" and "Remains of the Day", "Below Stairs" is also the subject of a BBC Four documentary. Featuring portraits of all ranks of servant the book illustrates the shifting organisation of households through the centuries, and the highly complex relationships between employers and employees. Traditionally, portraiture in Britain has concentrated on recording the upper classes and the celebrated. Instead, "Below Stairs" explores the representation of the servant, be it in a grand or modest household, in the country or in the town, at the royal courts or at colleges and clubs. This groundbreaking selection of paintings and photographs tells a fascinating story about power, class and human relationships spanning over 400 years of social and economic history.
Behind the green baize door
While 'upstart' butlers may make news, servants have largely been invisible in the history books. In art and fiction, however, they have long been an iconic presence, writes Alison Light
Sat 8 Nov 2003 01.30 GMT First published on Sat 8 Nov 2003 01.30 GMT
Down ill-lit corridors the servant scurries, disappearing into darkened chambers, hurrying back to the kitchens or the courtyards, a blur on the edge of vision. Servants form the greatest part of that already silent majority - the labouring poor - who have for so long lived in the twilight zone of historical record. In the servant's case, though, anonymity often went with the job.
In mid-to-late 19th-century Britain, when live-in service was at a peak, servants' labour was meant to be as unobtrusive as possible. Relegated to the basements and the attics, using separate entrances and staircases (their activities muffled and hidden behind the famous "green baize door"), they lived a parallel existence, shadowing the family members and anticipating their needs - meals appeared on the table, fires were found miraculously lit, beds warmed and covers turned back by an invisible hand.
In the grander households the lower servants were often unknown "above stairs". The writer Vita Sackville-West recalled that at Knole her mother was supplied with a list of first names from the housekeeper before she doled out seasonal gifts. More conveniently, servants were often hailed by their work titles such as "Cook" or "Boots", or, if their own names were considered too fancy, given more "suitable" ones: "Abigail", "Betty", "Mary Jane" were all in vogue at one time. Deportment and body language, the bowed head, the neatly folded hands, all prevented servants from "putting themselves forward", though few employers were like the Duke of Portland at Welbeck, who expected his staff to turn their faces to the wall if they encountered the family.
Few, that is, except for the royal family, some of whose archaic practices were revealed last week by Paul Burrell in his book A Royal Duty (including the Sunday task of ironing a £5 note for the Queen's church collection). Royal servants have long been a source of fascination because of their proximity to rulers who were otherwise remote. Such relationships often caused friction at court, as when Queen Victoria allowed her Hindustani teacher, or Munshi, the 24-year-old Abdul Karim, to take his meals with the royal household. The Windsors may expect a feudal level of fealty from their staff and, as the self-styled "keeper of Diana's secrets", Burrell is one in a long line of upstarts who has overstepped the mark. Yet the history of domestic service, even at its most mundane, suggests that it has always been a job like no other, involving unusual intimacies and frequently encouraging both employers and their charges to invest in a fantasy of friendship.
From medieval times, litigious servants have sought redress in the courts (legal records offer some of the earliest evidence of their lives). But historians have long found servants to be awkward customers. Their numbers alone make a history of service daunting (in 1900, there were still more people working in domestic service than in any other sector barring agriculture). Though they were legion, so much about servants was singular. They were legally seen as dependents but in principle were free to leave. Their hours of work, time off and wages were often unregulated and the perquisites, or "perks" of the job, such as the quality of their board and lodging, varied enormously. Working in comparative comfort behind closed doors, deferring to employers and perhaps silently envious of them, the figure of the servant represents all that is the opposite of the articulate, organised or collectively minded. Feminised, indoor and intimate, domestic service is usually excluded from more heroic accounts of the making of the English working classes.
Yet domestic service was not simply a throwback to a pre-industrial world. The ideal of service was the cornerstone of 19th-century life, informing the language and structure both of public institutions and family life. The Victorians elevated dependence into a moral and social good. The idea of serving others (perhaps in the new civil "service" or as a "servant" of a bank or indeed, in the "services") was strengthened indoors by an evangelical Christianity. Domestic servants drew satisfaction and self-respect from their devotion to duty, though few were so inspired as Hannah Cullwick, Arthur Munby's maid and scullion in the 1860s. Up to her elbows in grease and muck, she welcomed the filthiest chores, as her diaries record, partly as a test of her humility and of her faith in a salvation achieved by hard work. But "being drest rough & looking nobody", also gave her the freedom to "go anywhere and not be wonder'd at".
Service could mean betterment, though rarely did a servant rise far above her station (Cullwick eventually married her master but she obstinately resisted playing the lady). In Merlin Waterson's The Servants Hall (1980), which describes 250 years of domestic history at Erddig, the Yorke family's modest country house on the Welsh marches, we learn that Harriet Rogers preferred to be a lady's maid and housekeeper than remain at home on an isolated farm. The Yorkes encouraged her reading and broadened her horizons but she remained single all her life and quietly put away her numerous Valentine cards. Servants made choices, though not in circumstances of their own choosing. If we fail to recognise this, they remain typecast as trouble makers or arch conservatives, as rogues or dupes or victims.
Servants haunt the 18th- and 19th-century domestic novel, conjuring up the fears and fantasies of their employers. As Daniel Defoe's diatribe of 1724, "The Great Law of Subordination Consider'd", testified, the unruly servant was a sorcerer's apprentice who could send not just the kitchen but the whole social order spiralling into anarchy. In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814), when Fanny Price returns home to Portsmouth from her posh relatives, her first sight is of Rebecca, "a trollopy looking maid" who is "never where she ought to be". Rebecca's sluttish ways speak volumes about the moral impropriety of the family. Like Samuel Richardson's Pamela before her, Fanny is herself a servant morally worthy of a better station in life (Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is one of her descendants). Her social climbing will reform but not threaten the upper classes. She looks forward to generations of middle-class mistresses whose superiority depends on keeping others firmly in their place.
It's almost impossible for us to see service except through an optic of class antagonism or exploitation. Yet the attachments between servants and their employers were often complex. No man, as they say, is a hero to his valet - certainly not Charles Darwin, whose butler, Joseph Parslow, douched and dried him everyday for four months, while Darwin tried hydropathy for his chronic diarrhoea and nausea. Parslow, who numbered among his many tasks donning leather gaiters to gather flower spikes from ditches or ferrying plant specimens back from Kew Gardens, often cradled Darwin like a baby in his arms. Thomas and Jane Carlyle got through servants at a rate of knots (one was dismissed by him as a "mutinous Irish savage"). Prostrated by headache, Jane was often comforted by another maid-of-all-work, Helen Mitchell, who rubbed her cheek with her own and soothed her mistress with companionable tears.
Servants might be officially invisible but they were central as providers, especially when their employers were at their most needy. The English upper classes have frequently recalled cold childhoods warmed only by confederacies with the servants. Rudyard Kipling's first memories, in Something of Myself , were of his Portuguese ayah and the Hindu bearer, Meeta, who held his hand and eased his fear of the dark. "Father and Mother" were associated with painful partings. Service, in other words, has always been an emotional as well as an economic territory. The valet, the housekeeper and the girl who emptied the chamberpots all knew this as they stepped over the threshold of someone else's house.
In most painting, as in literature, servants appear in supporting roles. But an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery - "Below Stairs: 400 Years of Servants' Portraits" - gives faces to some of those whom history has effaced. British art frequently followed the Italian convention in which a servant, a page or secretary, a horse or dog, might be included to enhance the stature of the principal subject. Literally so with Van Dyck's portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria painted in 1633; she was quite tiny but standing next to dwarf Jeffrey Hudson added several cubits to her height.
Servants were among the first commodities to be displayed, along with the fashionable silks and porcelain, in small-scale "conversation pieces", family portraits from the 1720s. There are also plenty of walk-on parts for servants in genre paintings: pretty dairymaids in tidy farmyards, grooms exhibited with prize hounds in sporting scenes, ruddy-faced, fleshy cooks amid the slaughtered meat. Only rarely does a tremor of personality disturb these still lives.
"Below Stairs" concentrates on individual portraits of servants that have survived thanks to their employers' affection or caprice. The majority are "loyalty" portraits, meant to be exemplary and instructive, testifying to the benevolence of the masters as much as to the virtues of their staff. Erddig's enlightened squires had individual, informal portraits painted of the whole household, from the lowly "spider-brushers" to the cook, coachmen and gardeners, often with humorous scrolls attached detailing their lives and work. Loyalty portraits were popular too with the university colleges, museums, banks, clubs, hotels and other institutions. Paintings elevated trusty employees to the status of a symbol.
In their accompanying catalogue, curators Giles Waterfield and Anne French rightly warn that such portraits are anomalous. Only large establishments were likely to commission costly pictures and most British servants worked for the ever-expanding middle classes in far humbler situations. Rather than the butler or the housekeeper, the typical domestic in the 19th-century home or lodging-house was the "maid-of-all-work" or "slavey", like Dickens's "Marchioness" in The Old Curiosity Shop , whose half-starved existence comically belies her inflated title. Usually a young girl, often straight from the workhouse, such general servants came cheap (until the 1940s the majority of Barnardo's girls went straight into other people's kitchens).
Life-size or full-length, looking you straight in the face, it's a shock to encounter sympathetic images of people so often caricatured, reduced to cartoon or grotesquerie. Artists aimed at more than mechanical likenesses, "mere face-painting", as William Hogarth dubbed it. Bored with their patrons, painters were sidetracked by the servants whose faces were free of cosmetics and whose figures were less inert than those hampered by the trappings of wealth. George Stubbs's portrait of Freeman, the Earl of Clarendon's gamekeeper, for instance, shown moving in for the kill, is a force in his own right. Elderly servants, unlike their employers, didn't need to be flattered: the woodcarver with his spotted neckerchief, the weary housekeeper and the messenger at the Bank of England are given all their blemishes and wrinkles.
Loyalty portraits frequently commemorate long service and nothing is dearer to the conservative imagination than the image of the old retainer. Yet at the great houses, where the rewards for long service were most enticing, the speed at which servants could be hired and fired was often breathtaking. Even at Erddig there were clear limits to liberality. Elizabeth Ratcliffe, a lady's maid in the 1760s, was a talented artist who could put her hand to a mezzotint as easily as to her mending, but after one of her successes her mistress wrote to her son vetoing further exploits lest "I shall have no service from her & make too fine a Lady of her, for so much say'd on that occasion that it rather puffs her up". There are almost no portraits of ladies' maids in British art. Since the maid often dressed in the mistress's cast-offs, her Ladyship was afraid, perhaps, of being upstaged.
In reality, though, most servants have always been comers and goers, migrants arriving in the city and hoping to send money home, moving on to marriage or a better place. Ultimately, the servant portrait is poignant because it's a contradiction in terms. Its subjects, who often in life couldn't call their souls their own, are proudly dressed in a little brief authority. But even the most amiable portrait of the servant is always a portrait of the master.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, photography took over the loyalty convention, with group portraits of uniformed servants, often displaying their badge of office - a broom, a saucepan or a garden fork - formally posed outside the house. Such photographs remind us that live-in service does not belong to the distant past (I have one such memento of my grandmother in her days as a skivvy). Servants' testimonies, like those in the sound archives at Essex University, are often full of bitterness and shame. In her autobiography, Below Stairs (1968), Margaret Powell remembers how deeply humiliated she felt when her mistress told her to hand newspapers to her on a silver salver: "Tears started to trickle down my cheeks; that someone could think you were so low that you couldn't even hand them anything out of your hands."
Between the wars, as other employment became available, women, and particularly the young, voted with their feet. The decline of live-in service revealed just how hopelessly dependent many employers were. In the 1920s, for instance, Lytton Strachey's sisters, Pippa, Marjorie and Pernel (the former dedicated to women's suffrage, the latter principal of Newnham), had to ask their younger relatives to turn on the oven on the servant's day off. Dependence was often a matter of pride rather than practical incompetence. Opening the front door was especially unthinkable since servants were the gatekeepers to the outside world. Well into old age, Siegfried Sassoon, in impoverished isolation at Heytesbury House, kept up a façade of grandeur by asking visitors to come by the servants' entrance.
Of course there were people who remained a lifetime in other people's families, who were unstinting and generous and who believed what they were doing was worthwhile. Julia and Leslie Stephen's cook, Sophie Farrell, who was passed around Bloomsbury circles for many years, went on signing herself "yours obediently" to "Miss Ginia" (Virginia Woolf) all her life. Others were snobs who missed their privileges and the kindness of their employers. Once the old models of rank and deference collapsed, lives foundered; Frank Lovell, for five years head footman at Erddig, made a new start as a chauffeur just before he joined up in 1914 but the war years left him adrift. Disappointed and unsettled, he drowned in 1934, leaving his wife and young son believing it to be suicide. Servants often found it hard to adjust to a more democratic world.
But so did their employers. Although socialists and feminists might campaign for the poor, plenty assumed that housework was beneath them or that others were more suited to it. Margaret Bondfield, minister of labour in 1931, annoyed fellow Labour party members by refusing out-of-work Lancashire mill girls unemployment benefit if they turned down domestic training. The feminist Vera Brittain, whose unconventional household was shared with her husband and Winifred Holtby, her friend, depended on the servants, Amy and Charles Burnett, for years. It didn't prevent Brittain from bemoaning the lot of "the creative woman perpetually at the mercy of the 'Fifth Column' below stairs". Writers and artists wanted uninterrupted time and their servants duly emancipated them. Grace Higgens, for instance, "the Angel of Charleston", made it possible for Vanessa Bell to be a painter, cooking and cleaning for her for more than 40 years. "Ludendorff Bell", as her son Quentin called her, kept up the Victorian habit, nonetheless, of starting every day by giving her orders to the cook, who stood waiting while her mistress sat at the breakfast table. For all the photographs and portraits Bell made of Grace, they could never be pictured side by side.
By the 1950s, few British women expected to "go into" service but that is hardly the end of the story. In the last decade or so the domestic-service economy - an army of cleaners, child-minders, nannies and au pairs - has been rapidly expanding (Allison Pearson's recent apologia for the career woman, I Don't Know How She Does It, goes guiltily over the old ground of the mistress victimised by a manipulative underling). In this country much of the cooking and cleaning is done by low-paid casual workers, often migrants, in private houses as well as in hotels, offices and schools. Racial assumptions, as well as class feelings - as Barbara Ehrenreich and others have argued - are fostered by this division of labour.
All of us begin our lives helpless in the hands of others and will probably end so. How we tolerate our inevitable dependence, especially upon those who feed and clean and care for us, or take away our waste, is not a private or domestic question but one that goes to the heart of our unequal society. We rely constantly on others to do our dirty work and what used to be called "the servant question" has not gone away. The figure of the servant takes us not only inside history but inside ourselves.
· "Below Stairs" is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, until January 11. Alison Light is writing a book about Virginia Woolf's servants, to be published by Penguin.
Servants' Hall: A Real Life Upstairs, Downstairs Romance (Below Stairs)
Margaret Powell's Below Stairs became a sensation among readers reveling in the luxury and subtle class warfare of Masterpiece Theatre's hit television series Downton Abbey. Now in the sequel Servants' Hall, Powell tells the true story of Rose, the under-parlourmaid to the Wardham Family at Redlands, who took a shocking step: She eloped with the family's only son, Mr. Gerald.
Going from rags to riches, Rose finds herself caught up in a maelstrom of gossip, incredulity and envy among her fellow servants. The reaction from upstairs was no better: Mr. Wardham, the master of the house, disdained the match so completely that he refused ever to have contact with the young couple again. Gerald and Rose marry, leave Redlands and Powell looks on with envy, even as the marriage hits on bumpy times: "To us in the servants' hall, it was just like a fairy tale . . . How I wished I was in her shoes."
Once again bringing that lost world to life, Margaret Powell trains her pen and her gimlet eye on her "betters" in this next chapter from a life spent in service. Servants' Hall is Margaret Powell at her best―a warm, funny and sometimes hilarious memoir of life at a time when wealthy families like ruled England.