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Daphne Merkin

Behind the Green Baize Door

Two books explore England’s master-servant divide



SERVANTS: A DOWNSTAIRS HISTORY OF BRITAIN FROM THE NINETEENTH CENTURY TO MODERN TIMES BY LUCY LETHBRIDGE. W. W. NORTON & COMPANY. HARDCOVER, 400 PAGES. $27.

MRS. WOOLF AND THE SERVANTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY OF DOMESTIC LIFE IN BLOOMSBURY BY ALISON LIGHT. BLOOMSBURY PRESS. PAPERBACK, 400 PAGES. $20.





The wish to be taken care of or looked after past the childhood years, to have our basic needs administered to without great exertion on our part, is not one, or so it seems to me, that is much addressed outside of the therapist’s office—or, perchance, the rehab culture, where such primal longings get articulated by way of a dependence on drugs and alcohol. For the rest of us, who secretly yearn to have someone to help us lace up our shoes in the morning, like Julian English does in John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra—or, more generally, to have our meals prepared for us and then affably served—there are the gratifications of Downton Abbey. I suspect that the runaway success of this series, like Upstairs, Downstairs three decades before it (created by two actresses, Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who were themselves the offspring of former domestics) and much of Masterpiece Theatre’s offerings, resides less with the show’s sumptuous trappings or ambivalent attitude toward money—as a recent New York Times article by Chrystia Freeland argued—than with the way it allows us to peer in on a time and place when imperious adults were treated like dependent children.


I have been thinking about our fascination with the British upper classes and their relationship with their domestics not so much because I myself have warmed to Downton Abbey, but because I not long ago found myself reading two books on what Virginia Woolf referred to as “the question of Nelly”—also known as the servant problem. (Nelly Boxall worked as Woolf’s cook for eighteen years, ten of them as her sole live-in servant.) The recently published Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge, offers a sociological overview, making use of memoirs, extracts from servants’ diaries and letters, and contemporary accounts. Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury is more a work of literary investigation and analysis. Both books are unusually well-written and alert to the nuances of their respective subjects, suggesting the ways in which servants were both tirelessly kept in their place and yet often transcended it, standing in for figures other than themselves.


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Bookforum | April/May 2014.

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