Up and Down Stairs

 Christina Hardyment on a survey of servants' lives across the centuries

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Reviewed by: Christina Hardyment
Author: Jeremy Musson
Publisher: John Murray
Price (RRP): £9.99

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Since, Jeremy Musson tells us, we are far more likely to have a domestic servant in our family tree than a ducal coronet, it is not surprising that those who enjoy visiting country houses perk up visibly when they get to an evocatively-restored kitchen, preferably with a string of still-rooms, larders and lamp-rooms attached. Hence also the fascination of television series such as Upstairs, Downstairs and films like Gosford Park.

Musson is far from the first to describe servants’ lives across the centuries, and makes generous (and properly acknowledged) use of earlier more detailed accounts. The strength of his new survey is both in its range (six centuries or so) and in its copious use of personal anecdote, taken from contemporary advice books, memoirs and, latterly, interviews with owners, which are oral history in their own right. These reveal that 21st-century great houses, now isolated museums rather than economically self-sufficient magnets of social and political influence, face challenges all of their own.

Musson is unabashed in his preference for the grand: this book is thin on country parsonages and medium-sized manors, and thick with the reminiscences of omnicompetent butlers, liveried footmen and substantial housekeepers, who held sway over battalions of underlings and even had servants all their own. 

His emphasis, convincingly documented, is on the general loyalty, frequent affection and mutual trust that was essential to the smooth-running of the complex domestic arrangements by which the many kept the few in luxurious comfort. He concludes regretfully, likening the decline of the country house in the 20th century to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s in its impact on the national heritage.

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Christina Hardyment’s books include Behind the Scenes: The Domestic Organisation of Historic Houses (National Trust, 1997)