LIFE BELOW STAIRS: Domestic Servants in England from Victorian Times by Frank E. Huggett

LIFE BELOW STAIRS: Domestic Servants in England from Victorian Times

Email this review


A genial, amply illustrated overview of British domestic servants, primarily during the second half of the 19th century, with a briefer glimpse of 20th--century modifications. Using contemporary reproductions (Cruikshank, Lawson Wood) and apt quotations (from Punch, The Art of Dining), Huggett describes not merely the specific duties a butler or maid might perform but also the nuances of their social relationships. The below-stairs hierarchy, especially in the larger households, often required jurisdictional settlements--much like union disputes today; less prestigious homes had fuzzier lines of demarcation. First-class establishments offered better perks (free uniforms, finer meals) and, usually, less capricious employers, although the wealthiest could always afford to indulge outlandish whims--feeding a dozen dogs at a formal table. In the several decades before Rose and Hudson served the Bellamys, developments like the railways and the penny post significantly widened the horizons of the servant class and, coinciding with broad social movements, changed overall ambitions; Australia, promising higher salaries and upward mobility, attracted emigrants toward the end of the century; and the privations of the war years further contributed to the gradual decline in keeping one's place. Huggett suggests the continued presence of servants not only delayed home improvements such as central heating but impinged on social advances as well, keeping both maid and mistress from pursuing an education. He touches all bases here, from tea-pouring niceties and workhouse indignities to de rigueur seductions and newfangled gadgetry, and the grand selection of illustrations adds polish.

Pub Date: March 2nd, 1978
Publisher: Scribners