Author: Alison Maloney
Publisher: O’Mara Books
“The 1911 census showed that 1.3 million people in England and Wales worked ‘below stairs’ and many of those would have been in average middle-class homes, employed by doctors, lawyers and office-clerks, rather than dukes and princes.”
Life Below Stairs, now re-released in paperback, is an excellent book detailing the life servants in Edwardian England. Through popular television and fiction books, we have been made aware of the privilege life led by the upper classes. In Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, we become familiar with the Rackham’s social calendar, the invitations, the dresses and the money they have at their fingertips. Similarly, in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, readers are made aware of the expectations of the harsh, extravagant Sir Walter Elliot, but what about the hard-working servants that must rally around the family, readying their meals, cleaning the house, polishing their shoes and running their baths?
In Life Below Stairs, Alison Maloney opens the doors of the servants quarters, allowing readers to experience a life of servitude in Edwardian England. With the hugely popular Downton Abbey, people have become more interested in the life of the servants, as well as the family they worked for. Maloney has done her homework, and the 200 page book is complete with illustrations, facts and figures, tips and recipes, and even the daily schedule of a laundry woman, compared to a butler. The book also includes personal accounts from servants taken from memoirs, recounting their time as employees under harsh mistresses, with one particular woman writing about the hardships of being put into employment aged just 11, to save up for her maid’s uniform. For Downton Abbey fans, there is of course information on the ‘below stairs’ hierarchy from writer Julian Fellows and Alistair Bruce, who worked with the cast members.
It is at points hard to fully comprehend the amount of work young girls would have to complete on a daily basis. Waking up from 6:30am and not resting again until the family retired, as late as 1am during the Season. It is interesting to learn about the differences in pay between the butler, considered an ‘upper-servant’, to the lowly wage of a scullery maid or a hallboy. For footmen, the pay could changed dependant on the hight of the man (the taller the better).
Overall, this is a very well researched book, and in the interests of anyone hoping to use it for academic reasons, it is set into nine chapters, with a handy index at the end. The main thing I’ve taken from this book is to be thankful that I don’t have to work in the poor conditions that the girls my age were subjected to, in order to avoid poverty and to provide a little for their families back home.