SERVANTS by Lucy Lethbridge


A Downstairs History of Britain From the Nineteenth-Century to Modern Times
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A surprisingly substantive, elucidating social study of the British class system.

London journalist Lethbridge emphasizes numerous important facets of the master-servant relationship that kept the great houses of Britain running smoothly until their apogee in the Edwardian era: namely, that the relationship represented by its orderliness and rigidity the very symbol of English imperialism. Indeed, even the middle classes enriched by the Industrial Revolution employed their coterie of servants, underscoring the master-servant bond as what judge Sir William Blackstone termed in 1765 the “first of the three ‘great relationships of private life’ ” (the others being spousal and filial). Like the caste system of India, to which the British system glommed effortlessly, the army of domestic servants in England was highly stratified, divided into “niche skills.” The pay was minimal, but the estate offered safety, room and board. The jobs were divided between indoor and outdoor servants and between those at the top, such as the butler and housekeeper, and those at the bottom, the charwoman and scullery maid. They were further delineated by height and appearance (the taller ones received higher-paying, front-of-the-house jobs). The number of people working as domestic servants rivaled the number of agricultural workers up until the turn of the century, and yet this huge body of workers was “largely excluded from the industrial unrest that rocked the first ten years of the 20th century…scorned by their working-class peers as the most despised representatives of class betrayal.” Considered flunkies, “scivvies” and toadies by the urban factory workers, the career domestics tended to be conservative in their views, nostalgic even for the “sacred trust” established between patron and servant. The author explores how the forces of war, modern technology and feminist consciousness eventually helped blow the relationship apart.

Employing numerous real-house and literary examples, Lethbridge lends poignancy to the master-servant dynamic.

Pub Date: Nov. 18th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-393-24109-9
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2013


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