Downton Abbey — and Upstairs, Downstairs before that — can be a bit of a curse for writers. Why? Because both show us servants, below stairs, who are human and empathetic. Because they show us relationships between upstairs and downstairs that seem respectful on both sides, even cosy. And because they aren’t always true to history.
Don’t believe me? Then let’s turn to Mrs Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) for advice:
A servant is not to be seated … in his master’s or mistress’s presence; nor to offer any opinion, unless asked for it; nor even to say “good night,” or “good morning,” except in reply to that salutation.
Servants must know their place: Neither Seen Nor Heard
Mrs Beeton was echoing received wisdom: that servants must speak only when spoken to. From the late 17th century on, employers increasingly required them to be invisible, as well.
Most houses that employed servants also had separate entrances and staircases for them, like the one shown left. Walk around the streets of Belgravia in London and you will still see townhouses with basements accessed via area steps, even very small houses like those on the right. We see such entrances on TV when the Downton family visit London, though their house was much bigger.
Ashdown House in Berkshire has only one internal staircase (shown below) and so servants had no choice but to use it. Author Nicola Cornick, a volunteer guide at Ashdown, explains that if a servant met one of the gentlefolk on the stairs, the servant had to turn to face the wall immediately. No bow, no curtsey, no speech. Just the nearest thing to invisibility.
The same was true in the galleries of Blenheim Palace, Sophie tells me, because there was no backstairs access to that part of the house.
Upstairs Downstairs: Longbourn and elsewhere
In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie Bennet laments the fact that every detail of the family’s misfortune over Lydia is known to all the servants. She would have preferred more distance and discretion, but she knows it’s useless to wish for anything of the sort in the Bennet household.
Mrs Bennet seems to confide in Mrs Hill, her housekeeper. And Hill is so deeply involved with the family’s affairs that she feels able to approach Jane and Lizzie for information about Lydia when the express letter arrives. Decades later, Mrs Beeton might have disapproved of such forward behaviour, even from a servant of long standing. But Lydia, ever heedless, is happy to show off her wedding ring to Mrs Hill and the housemaids.
Mrs Hill had probably known the Bennet girls from the cradle. The same is true in Downton Abbey. It’s clear that Carson, the butler, has a very fatherly fondness for Lady Mary. And she returns his affection, though both are careful to maintain the proprieties.
The children of great houses were often brought up by servants. The children would hover in the kitchens — where their parents probably never set foot — to scrounge treats. They would hobnob with grooms in the stables, learning the kind of low-class language they were not supposed to know (as little Edmund does in Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester).
Such children often received more attention and affection from nannies and servants than from their own parents.
Winston Churchill (shown here, in 1881, aged 7) longed to earn his father’s love and respect; he got love and devotion from his nanny instead.
So how to show servants on the page?
With careful thought.
You may decide that Downton Abbey is a bit too cosy and that you prefer the sharper divide of Gosford Park (also written by Julian Fellowes). You may adopt Mrs Beeton’s rules, or you may find them a bit uptight.
Much depends on the setting and the characters. The master-servant divide grew over the centuries, becoming very wide indeed over the course of the nineteenth century. But even in the late Victorian period, the Neither-Seen-Nor-Heard rule could not hold for devoted servants.
A showy footman, employed purely for his broad shoulders and finely-turned calf, might be dismissed on the spot. A long-established and faithful servant was a different matter altogether.
Sylvester (a Regency-era duke) describes the situation exactly: “In my own household my esteem is all that signifies,” he says, making clear that his top-lofty valet may leave whenever he wishes. But Keighley, the lowly groom who sat him on his first pony, is a different matter: “I never engaged him, and could never dismiss him.”