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Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to Modern Times
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Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to Modern Times

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  1,190 ratings  ·  206 reviews
A compassionate and discerning exploration of the complex relationship between the server, the served, and the world they lived in, Servants opens a window onto British society from the Edwardian period to the present.
Hardcover, 385 pages
Published November 18th 2013 by W. W. Norton Company (first published March 1st 2013)
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 ·  1,190 ratings  ·  206 reviews


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Petra X is feeling very sad
This book is about the change from the immense number of staff required to run a huge estate and to show the status of their employers down to the big, bright kitchens of today where we all do our own housework or have a 'treasure' once a week. However, there are still the estates run on the old style with servants whose presence is never acknowledged until something is required from them. Buckingham Palace for one. There are many countries in the world which have not reached this enlightened st ...more
Mel Campbell
Domesticity is such a fraught space. Women have long been told that they should build their identities around home-making, and so the people who can afford to outsource their domestic labour are demonised as lazy and uncaring, and the servants who actually make homes are robbed of the dignity and purpose that our culture associates with work because the credit for that work goes to their employers.

And while we like to think that these relationships and economies are quintessential to some contem
...more
Anima
Jan 27, 2019 rated it liked it
“For many of those American heiresses who did marry into the aristocracy it was often their spouses’ practical incompetence – being stumped by the simplest of daily tasks – that proved most perplexing to their new brides. When sitting beside a dwindling fire, a poker at their feet, it was usual to ring for a footman to poke the fire using the very same poker. Yet at the same time, they often went to great lengths rarely to encounter most of those who did the work for them, never to brush up agai ...more
JimZ
Mar 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was a very interesting read and well worth the effort. My quibbles are so minor I think I will not even mention them. 😊

Well, actually the author used words I had to look up in the dictionary (the nerve of her!): sartorial; maundering; mordant; eponymous (I have come across this numerous times, and I look it up, but the word goes in one cerebral hemisphere and out the other); profligacy (same comment); invidious; solecism; quiddities; munificent.

This was a nonfiction book on the lives of se
...more
Blue
Oct 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
Thank you Goodreads First Reads for a copy of this book!

Well, watching Downton Abbey, I find myself thinking often that Fellows has used too much poetic license. I think, no way! Reading Servants, I realized just how much of DA is actually textbook stuff. This was really surprising. Things that seemed puzzling, like how Carson (the butler) was always huffing and puffing over the smallest details, and how he is often dressed to the teeth for dinner downstairs (in the kitchen, mind you!), and why
...more
Ruth
Really, really enjoyed this one. The author has pieced together, from a wide range of sources, an astonishingly coherent history of servants and life in service from both the perspective of the servants and their employers, from the mid-Victorian era to today.

It was a far more thought-provoking read than I expected. Viewed from today (when you might generally have child care help or a weekly cleaner, if you're one of the lucky ones), the days when everyone had help in the home seem like a differ
...more
Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
3.5 stars

I wound up appreciating this work of social history, aimed at a popular audience, much more as I got further into it. It chronicles the experiences of servants and the history of the institution of domestic servitude in the U.K. from approximately the late 19th century through the mid to late 20th, including many firsthand accounts full of striking details. While it is a broad social history rather than the narrative of any individuals in particular, I became interested in some of the p
...more
Andrea Broomfield
Jan 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Lucy Lethbridge’s Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times is the best comprehensive history I have seen on the topic of domestic labour in Great Britain. Using a methodology that resembles that of my favorite historian, David Kynaston (see Austerity Britain: 1944-1951 for example), Lethbridge did a copious amount of primary research, relying on diaries, correspondence, newspaper columns, and interviews with former servants and employers to tell the c ...more
Sklape
Feb 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I heard about this book on Fresh Air and since Downton Abbey is currently airing, I thought this book would be a compliment to the show. I thoroughly enjoyed this social history. Service for many was the last possible option among working class people. Referred to as "skivvies" by their working class counterparts, those in service were viewed as contributing to the problem of class stratification. The resistance on the part of the aristocracy to adopt labor saving devices was based on the belief ...more
Andie
Jan 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
The perfect antidote to those people who are living in the golden haze produced by too many hours watching Downton Abbey and other movie/TV shows that portray English servants in the early twentieth century as happy employees in harmony with their upper class employers, this well-researched book will put to rest any such fantasies. Instead it shows servants in the first half of the century to be over worked while being underpaid as well as under appreciated.

The author uses interviews, letters an
...more
Susan
Jul 06, 2014 rated it it was ok
Well, it started out interesting, but then went on. And on. And on. I struggled to keep going, but confess to skimming the last half. It was, as another reviewer notes, strangely organized, and seemed to tread the same ground in chapter after chapter. Here's the CliffsNotes: being a servant in England pretty much sucked, and the middle and upper classes were jerks. The End. Now bring on the next season of "Downton Abbey." ...more
Inder
Aug 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is an excellent piece of history writing - I found it utterly engaging and fascinating from start to finish!
Tocotin

A book of high interest for anyone who doesn’t consider history to be the exclusive domain of mighty lords and ladies. A refreshing look at otherwise progressive and well-meaning intellectuals as well (Bloomsbury and others). The refinement, detachment and poise, all these things were possible because of the neglected and degraded humanity wasting their mental and physical strength on them. It’s mind-boggling really, the hold that money and class still have on us – most books and movies and othe
...more
Kerry
Mar 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Extremely well-researched, this book offers insights into the different types and levels of service and the realities and challenges those in service faced throughout the decades. More thorough that many books on this topic, it's an excellent resource for someone who wants a more in-depth treatment in a readable format. ...more
Andrea Seaver
Truth in reviewing first...... I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway.
Servants is a non-fiction work detailing the lives and attitudes both of and towards domestic servants in the late nineteenth century through to the late twentieth century. Some references are to earlier periods, but as a whole this book begins with the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, and is sectioned into time periods based largely on world events. Pre-WWI and then the twenties, etc. The author has limite
...more
Paola
In this very interesting book Lucy Lethbridge traces the history of domestic service in Britain (well, England, mostly) concentrating mainly around the first half of the twentieth century, from its apogee of the Edwardian period to its essential extintion in the sixties.
In so doing she also sketches a social history of England, of the evolution of the attitudes to the class system and the role of women in the house and in the wider society.
Lethbridge draws from an impressive range of sources, fr
...more
Sara
Mar 11, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fic
More like 3 1/2

I've gotten used to narrative non-fiction, both through reading and podcasts, and this book is NOT in the narrative vein. It is more academic and expository. The author organizes the book by topics and themes, which sometimes correspond to a specific time period, and sometimes take a longer view. For example, a section titled "Bowing and Scraping" talks about the way servants often felt dehumanized in their roles, and the author provides examples and quotes from a variety of peopl
...more
Lesley
Jan 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: staff-recomends
Upstairs Downstairs. Gosford Park. Remains of the Day. Downton Abbey. These fictional depictions of early 20th century British households have nurtured an obsessive fascination with butlers and ladies maids, 14 piece silver dinner sets, and the illusions of a simpler, more gracious time. Lucy Lethbridge slices through the sentimentality with the deadliness of a finely honed carving knife, revealing a history of domestic service that is far less rosy than what one sees onscreen. Along the way, sh ...more
Lois
Um wow this book has everything, detailed accounts of servants and those they served. Fascinating details on servants daily life, career track, as well as life both inside of service and outside of service. This equally covers the class system and distinctions both within society at large as well as society below stairs and behind green baize doors. Fascinating how the wars (WWI and WWII) change service. Service barely stabilizes, a very much smaller and less presumptuous affair than in Edwardia ...more
Shari Larsen
This book explores the culture of domestic service workers in Britain, from around the 1890s through the 1960s, and the families that employed them, and how the two world wars affected those occupations. The author details the work of cooks, parlor maids, footmen, scullery maids, butlers, etc, through interviews with former domestic workers, and through letters and diaries.


This was a very interesting read, and I really enjoyed it, though there were 2 or 3 chapters that to me, seemed a little too
...more
John Levon
Nov 04, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A really interesting read, relying heavily on interviews and recordings with servants of the time. It does a great job describing the changing patterns of domestic service across the 20th century, especially on how the two wars changed things so much.

The book is as much about the master as it is the servant, and some of the stories here are eye-opening - some people used to get their loose change washed by their servants - every night!

There's a very small bit of info about the Raj, would have li
...more
TheRealMelbelle
Jan 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
I became interested in this book after hearing an intriguing Fresh Air interview on NPR. This is a very interesting book. It was well written and did a good job dealing with the subject of domestic servants in light of the changing culture and needs of Britain primarily from Edwardian times until the 1950s. There was such societal change and the role and employment of servants during that time was complex.

Lucy Lethbridge organized a lot of material in a very readable account of this fascinating
...more
Alison
Jan 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this a lot. There's a lot of interesting detail about the running of those houses in late Victorian/Edwardian England that I find fascinating (and horrifying.) When you watch Downton Abbey, think of the servants in the kitchen, washing dishes without gloves or even a dishcloth because fingers could get into the small places better. Or stirring a pot of boiling eggs so the yolks would be centered. There's nothing new here but it's presented well, including interviews with men and women ...more
Mary
Oct 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fun read, really interesting

I'm glad I didn't have to be a servant in Victorian or Edwardian England. I wouldn't have survived. This book is a really good look at the work they did, how many different kinds of servants there were, and how they coped. It also talks about the employers, their expectations and frustrations.

The author uses a mix of personal stories, studies done over the decade, a look at servants in popular fiction, and statistics. It flowed and always kept my interest.
...more
CatBookMom
Somehow this book just didn't keep my interest enough to want to finish it. There were interesting bits, particularly that even English families of very low income levels had at least one live-in maid/cook/laundrywoman until quite late in the 19th century, in some cases into the early 20th. ...more
Susan Williams
Feb 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fabulous!

Meticulously researched, thorough, well organized and written and vastly entertaining. A perfect work of history with fascinating details. Kudos to the author. Even the bibliography is interesting and profuse!
Jennifer
Sep 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I recently became a "Downton Abbey" addict and thus wanted to explore in greater depth what being a servant really meant in 19th century Britain and beyond.

This non fiction is a broad sketch of servitude well organized into sections which show the shifting of perceptions of it throughout time. Having a servant or servants went from being a symbol of status for a family to something that marked them as being wasteful and unwilling to embrace new technologies. Throughout each section you'll hear
...more
peggy murphy mercado
Dec 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
I just finished, 'Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge. As I stated previously, this was a book that I had won through Goodreads Giveaways. I am glad that I read this book; which was quite a detailed history about home in general and the way in which the English redefined how their homes looked and ran. I learned some things; that I hadn't known. For instance, I had no idea how ingrained the whole concept of service seemed to be ...more
Fiona Brichaut
I enjoyed this a lot and learnt a lot. It is well written, without any sensationalism but gritty and realistic. Much of the details are taken from letters and memoirs of servants so you get a genuine insight into daily life, unlike other similar books I've read where the source material is mainly books written by wealthy and/or educated people observing the servant classes. I wish it had been twice the length.

I've already read several books about the life of servants in the 19th C (including Mrs
...more
Kate
Nov 24, 2013 rated it liked it
I've read better books (from the 1970s, when Upstairs Downstairs was hot and Edwardian servants were still around to be interviewed) with more first-hand accounts of servant life, but this book, despite its overly ambitious subtitle, does something those books didn't: it details part-time service like the Useful Aunts, newly poor aristos making some cash in service, and talks about the second half of the twentieth century.
You can feel that Lethbridge did a lot of reading before she wrote this,
...more
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Lucy Lethbridge has written numerous books, as well as writing articles for the Observer, the Sunday Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday, the Times Literary Supplement, Art News, and Art+Auction. She lives in London.

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