Servants on the Page: the Downton Conundrum

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.

Grand staircase at Ashdown, used also by servants

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.”

17 thoughts on “Servants on the Page: the Downton Conundrum

  1. Louise Allen

    Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire has a fine example of “snob boards” lining a stairwell at attic level to stop the servants looking down on their masters

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Louise. Hadn’t been to that one.

      And apologies to anyone who is seeing the pic of the area steps on its side. It appears to depend on which browser you use. In Windows + Chrome, it’s on its side; on Mac + Safari, it’s the right way up. So I’ve concluded it’s impossible to make it show properly for everyone. Sorry.

    2. Joanna Post author

      I meant to add that “snob boards” and equivalent persisted for a long time. I know an upmarket Hampshire house, built in 1935 for a prosperous middle-class owner. There was a very clear servant’s part of the house, consisting of kitchen with bell board, pantry, primitive loo and access to outside coal sheds. Not only was it built to a different standard from the rest of the house — no cornices, flimsy doors etc — but all the windows were glazed with frosted glass to above head height so that the servant couldn’t see her betters in the garden.

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    From my reading, it appears the divide grew as the 19th century got older. The Georgians were a rough and ready lot and made less of a thing of keeping servants invisible. Except for the King and royalty, of course, but my understanding is that the English found the French attitude towards servants very different to their own. A phrase sticks in my mind that (especially on the racing field) you would find aristocrats “hobnobbing with all sorts and conditions of men”.

    It’s much more interesting to have relationships between domestics and employers in novels, though. But one can choose to make them invisible if it suits the story, of course. Though everyone still had to know his place, even if the relationship was relaxed in some cases. And an impertinent servant would very quickly find out where they belonged.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I agree, Liz. As the 19th century progressed, there was less and less need for the employers to be involved in servants’ tasks whereas in earlier periods, especially in rural districts, the lady of the house was involved eg in the dairy and the stillroom. Once shops in towns could provide butter and cheese and cough remedies etc, the employer could retire to her embroidery. Even as early as Jane Austen — viz that quote from P&P — employers saw dignity in NOT having to do menial work.

  3. Sue McCormick

    I think the division would depend on the characters involved in are era of history; thereby making both Downton Abby and Mrs. Beeton accurate.

    In middle class homes in the United States, pretty much throughout our history, we didn’t have servants — we had live-in help. Many were young girls working until they were married. They had a bedroom in the house and helped with the house work. They didn’t eat with the family (they brought the food to the table, instead, and were “rung” for if the family needed refills, or it was time for dessert. But they had ample time to eat the same foods in the kitchen, at the same time as the family. Also, family and help worked together, and discussed events together. Live-in help was not usually considered a part of the family, but they were never servants. Either.

    We had such help until I was 12, when my sister (then 8) and I rebelled. We wanted the wages to go to our interests (specifically a new car) instead of the help, and we wanted to learn to keep house ourselves. Also — and probably most important — we didn’t like the help who had lived with us the previous winter. She had been snippy, whereas all the others had stood our friends. And indeed, mother carried on a lifelong friendship with the woman who had been our help when my sister was a baby. She left to marry, and she and mother corresponded afterwards.

    Note, that I am trying to explain the differences between servants and help. Both existed but they were never the same positions.

  4. Melinda Hammond

    How true all this is. Servants can be used to great effect in a novel – they can be characters in their own right, or used to reflect the disposition of others. There is one scene in the 2005 film of Pride & Prejudice that never fails to surprise me: when Lady Catherine de Burgh arrives at the Bennets house and is given a cup of tea (we’ll gloss over the fact that she arrives in the middle of the night). Lady C says “thank you” to the servant. Even in at her most charitable I really, really cannot think Lady C would give such notice to a servant!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’m sure you’re right about Lady C, Melinda. Obviously the film needed advice from Regency authors. They failed on that, so they didn’t get it right.

  5. Anita Chapman (@neetsmarketing)

    I love this post, thank you. My mother used Mrs Beeton a lot for recipes, she was an amazing cook, and I still use a copy which she gave to me when I left home. The main character in the eighteenth century part of my WIP is a governess, so has quite a bit of contact with the family, but I have to include her friendship with the valet and housekeeper, so there are below stairs scenes and upstairs scenes too. A recent problem was how to allow a man (the earl and the valet, on separate occasions) to visit her in her bedchamber when she was bedridden due to illness. Asking on Facebook gave me the answer-include a chaperone and it’s OK, so I’ve used a maid who I’ve named Maud, who sorts out the fire and sweeps the floor while she is there.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Anita. Glad you found the solution to your plotting issue, too. Of course, it would have been possible for a man to sneak into your heroine’s bedroom and get away with it, but if you want the visit to be open and above board (do you?), a chaperon does the business.

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