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The lives and labor of those "below stairs"

The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant - Pamela Horn

For the past several decades, a steady stream of books has been published about the men and women who labored in in the country houses and townhouses of Great Britain. While Pamela Horn's book was among the first to benefit from the burgeoning interest in the subject, it has endured thanks to its clear writing and straightforward overview of the subject. Drawing upon a range of diaries, contemporary publications, official reports, and other sources, Horn supplies readers with an introduction to the lives of those who served.

 

Horn's book provides a systematic description of its subject, examining in topical chapters such subjects as how servants found employment, their daily tasks, and the crimes which they committed. She demolishes one key stereotype early on by noting that many servants were not part of the retinues of large manors, but often worked instead in the homes of upper-middle and even middle class homes. Though their circumstances varied considerably, she shows how they were united by the drudgery of their work, which extended from dusting to cooking to hauling pails of hot water upstairs for baths. With larger staffs, the duties were often segmented into a number of tasks and handed out to servants who specialized in those roles, but even the most specialized servant faced a day of often arduous tasks and often condescending treatment.

 

As Horn demonstrates, the fall of the Victorian servant was a consequence of this drudgery, as women (who made up the majority of those "in service") began gravitating towards other occupations. The First World War only accelerated this trend, so that by the 1920s domestic service was withering for lack of participants, forcing the wealthy and well-to-do to find expedients to compensate for the unavailable labor. This trend continued to the point where by the time Horn write her book the live-in domestic servant had gone from an indispensable component of a well-to-do household to a rarity. No doubt it is the very novelty of such servants today which makes them the object of such interest, and for those seeking to learn more about them this book is an excellent place to start.