Monday, January 9, 2012

Up and Down Stairs

Subtitled, The History of the Country House Servant, Up and Down Stairs is exactly what it puts itself out to be.  From the medieval days to the present day, this book gives you an overview of the the time period and the servant's role in it, as well as how the changing lifestyles in turn affected architectural design.

I've always been interesting in the behind-the-scenes, operational side of a large home.  I remember longing, as a child, to be able to see the kitchen and work rooms of an historical estate.  Even now, seeing what's "Behind the Green Baize Door" [title of chapter 4] and getting a glimpse of how it all works is more intriguing to me than seeing the formal rooms.

That's why I love Gosford Park and Downton Abbey.  That's why one of the best parts of staying at the amazing Ashford Castle in Cong, Ireland, was the opportunity to go to the kitchen and make scones.  I've no idea why this interest is embedded in me in the first place, but Up and Down Stairs certainly helped fill that thirst for knowledge.  It also made me want to know more, which (I think) reflects on the writing quite admirably.

Two vital aspects in writing nonfiction are organization and writing fluidity, and Jeremy Musson seemed to accomplish both effortlessly.  The book begins with the castles of medieval times, and ends with the modern day, spending the most time in the 18th and 19th centuries: the high point for large country estates.  Also included were pictures and quotes (from both servant and master) spanning those time periods--a nice addition that helped to keep it from bogging down.

I had to read aloud to my husband the duties of a valet--boy is he ever jealous.  I think that acquiring a valet just went on his bucket list (or perhaps it was already there!)  Whether you empathize with the working conditions of some of the servants or pine for the life of the master, if you've ever wanted to know more about Britain's grand estates or those in domestic service that kept them running, you'll find something to love in this book.

A critical factor [after the war] was the inability to recruit new servants, not merely to look after the landowner’s family personally, but also to maintain the contents and fabric of the house. The loss of the ‘odd man’ who had once swept the gutters and cleared the drains was in many ways as significant as the loss of a steward or a butler.

Where to go next?  I have a copy of Keeping their Place: excerpts from servants' writing about life in domestic service, and have an inclination to finally read some Wodehouse...and off to watch the new season of Downton Abbey!  Some days, I must admit, it sounds awfully nice to have a scullery maid to do the washing up.


  1. This sounds like a really interesting book. Nice review!

  2. Sounds very interesting to me too!! I'm adding it to my WishList :)
    I've always found it interesting that in some households there is actually a class system within the help...some jobs are looked down upon while some jobs hold honor. It seemed to me though that the ones who held the jobs closest to their masters seemed to have to do the most personal jobs...I'd rather mop the floor...:p
    If you find a scullery maid, send her my way please :)

  3. Downton Abbey is the first thing I thought of when I saw this book! Still haven't watched the first episode yet *sigh*

  4. Jo, it was a good one (and it felt very good to read some nonfiction!)

    Peppermint, that was actually a big part of the book--the class distinction and hierarchy with the servants. Young people were willing to work hard jobs for next to nothing because it was experience that would help them move up. Personally, I'd take any of the jobs that let me sleep past 8am. :)

    L.L., after reading this book I might re-watch it! I know that it is at least time to re-watch Gosford Park. I don't know if I want to watch the new season of Downton Abbey until they are all out...I hate waiting!

  5. I might get this for my mum as she loves stuff like this. She is also a huge fan of shows like downton abbey

  6. Melody, after 3 episodes of Downton Abbey, my husband said to me, "Would you think worse of me if I said I wanted a valet?" And the answer is no, but first priority would be the scullery maid...someone to clean the toilets. This looks like a very interesting book, and might answer the questions that come up while we're watching Downtown Abbey...could you marry someone who worked in the same house as you if you were a servant?

  7. Jessica, it sounds like a perfect fit! So much interesting information here.

    Robyn, first priority is absolutely a scullery maid! And then a housemaid...and a gardener...and a cook...yeah I could go on and on. :) How the servant structure was set up with those big country houses (in the 18th-19th centuries mostly)--with the house servants living inside the house and working so many hours--really made it impossible for them to marry. It would make living arrangements awkward and take time away from the job. Kind of sad, actually. If they did end up marrying, usually the girl would have to quit and live away from the house, hardly ever seeing her husband. Now, outdoor servants (gardeners etc.) were often housed in cottages i(f they were upper servants,) and so they could manage having a family a bit easier. Because of room & board, perks and allowances, having dependents complicated matters. They wanted employees who were solely dedicated to the house. It was interesting to read how much (and why) everything changed in the 20th century.

  8. You're right about organisation being key to a non-fiction book, I find that's usually where books fall down.

    This has gone on my wishlist, it sounds very interesting.

  9. This sounds right up my alley! I adore Downton Abbey as well (and did you see Masterpiece Theater's Upstairs Downstairs last year? Not exactly a remake, but a revisit - if you will. SO good.) I'll need to watch Gosford Park.. is it wonderful?

    I, literally, just picked up the House at Tyneford today at the store because it is supposed to be in this same category. I will definitely be trying this book (and perhaps the one you mentioned at the end. Thanks, Melody!

  10. I've had this one of the wishlist for a while now. I'm also fascinated by the English Upstairs/Downstairs dynamics (a branch of my general Anglophilia).

    Also on my list: "Life Below Stairs" by Alison Maloney and "Keeping Their Place" by Pamela Sambrook. Have you heard of them?

    PS: Ashford Castle - also added it to travel wish-list. Looks perfect.

  11. Sam, there's got to be so much information that goes into writing a nonfiction book that half the battle must be just deciding where it all goes and what gets excluded. The pace was pretty good on this one too, which is always nice to find in NF.

    Wallace, I'd heard of Upstairs Downstairs but didn't see it...I'll look into it more. Gosford Park is great--sort of a country house murder-mystery movie, but shown mostly from the servants' angle which makes it fascinating. Looking forward to hearing what you think about The House at Tyneford! It piqued my curiosity as well.

    Alex, I have Keeping Their Place, and just put Life Below Stairs on my wishlist. Thanks for the recommendation! Ashford Castle was, for a while at least, the home of the Guinness family! The grounds and adjoining village are delightful--I'd definitely go back. :)


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