History, Nonfiction

Life Below Stairs, by Alison Maloney


Even though it has been two years since it’s been off the air, I’ve been mourning the completion of Downton Abbey lately and will probably re-watch my DVDs soon. In the meantime, Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants has been a fun, quick, informative read.

The whole idea of an upstairs/downstairs lifestyle is very foreign and outdated, but still fascinating. Until reading this book, it never occurred to me how the lack of modern appliances necessitated large amounts of servants in houses that were almost kingdoms unto themselves. However, just like when reading about famous frontiersmen and women, I was reminded that everything took longer in a time when there was no electricity, no washing machines, dishwashers, and often–no indoor plumbing.

I have new appreciation for shows such as Downton Abbey because of the nuances in servants’ characters: the obvious hierarchy among those below stairs, the fierce protection of their jobs, the back-biting and work politics , the sleeplessness, the importance of character references, and the huge amount of rules and restrictions.

And yet, for many, it was either a tireless life in service or abject poverty.

For a poor and unskilled person, but one with great personal potential and a high work ethic, going into service was a terrific opportunity. And, unlike today’s minimum wage jobs, service provided room and board and sometimes, a chance for advancement.

It makes one stop and think how many people today would leap at such a chance, despite the hardships.

This book reads almost like a interesting text book. It is very well organized and uses great “word economy.” There is no fluff, just an outline of the way things used to be in a time now gone. If this is a period in history that interests you, I recommend it.

9.5/10 Stars

2 thoughts on “Life Below Stairs, by Alison Maloney”

  1. I read this book a few months ago and greatly enjoyed it. I think it’s wonderful supplemental reading for anyone who is a fan of Downton Abbey. The sporadic historical material (i.e period illustrations, newspaper clippings, product advertisements) helped to further illustrate the lifestyle of those who lived below stairs. In all honesty, when watching the show I was more interested in how the staff managed to feel personally fulfilled when most of their lives were spent working for the privileged. I especially remember Daisy’s passion to educate herself with Molesely’s help and Gwen’s eventual success as a secretary. One fact in the book that astounded me: domestic servants were only granted one free afternoon a month. Only a few households allowed their staff to spend up to two weeks a year not working!

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