Written by Jeremy Musson
John Murray (Publishers)
Review by Meredith Allard
All right, yes, I admit… I’m as struck with Downton Abbey as millions of others have been before me. It must be the teacher in me, but one thing that makes me particularly happy about Downton is that fans have taken to reading about life during the Edwardian era. After all, we have to do something with ourselves while we wait a year between seasons. For myself, as an American, before Downton the most I knew about English servants was what I had read in some of my all-time favorite books—P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories. Not particularly flattering—for the gentry, that is. Poor Bertie. How would he ever get through his days without Jeeves? Then, occasionally, in other books, television shows, or movies, a servant would appear, hand someone something on a tray, and disappear.
If you’re a Downton Abbey fan curious about the real lives of the downstairs folks, or if you’re interested in servants’ lives simply because it’s a fascinating subject in its own right, Up and Down Stairs by Jeremy Musson is a good place to start. Musson begins his detailed description of the life of servants in the later Middle Ages to the end of the sixteenth century, working his way through the centuries to the post World War II years. He brings to light the beginning of those features of servant life Downton fans know most about—the back stairs, the Servant’s Hall, and the green baize door.
Musson starts with Doctor Johnson’s definition of servant: “One who attends another, and acts at his command—the correlative of master.” Musson then points out that we don’t use the word servant any more, true enough since the word has taken on a negative connotation. As Musson takes us through the centuries, we can see how the servants’ role evolved. Musson draws on primary sources such as letters from both servants and masters, newspaper articles, and how-to manuals written during the period, and his book is a wealth of information.
In Up and Down Stairs Musson doesn’t form conclusions about what it all meant for the servants, for their masters, or for anyone else. He’s not trying to convince us of anything. He’s simply stating the facts, and if you’re interested in the facts—of how the word “family” evolved from meaning everyone who lived and worked under the same roof to our current meaning of kin, of how in earlier days the servants lived close by their masters, sometimes sleeping in the hall outside their masters’ doors, to the desire for more privacy which created the separate living quarters upstairs and downstairs—then you will find reading Up and Down Stairs time well spent. Sometimes the information became repetitive, as if one servant’s letter was too similar to the previous servant’s letter, but otherwise I found Up and Down Stairs to be enlightening about a subject I knew little about. I’m already looking for my next Downton-inspired read.
Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.