History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

12 August 2007

Upstairs Downstairs, Regency style

As a seat-of-the-pants researcher (leave a space, look it up, if you can’t find the answer, make something up), about my only area of expertise is that of servants. Why? Because I find them fascinating in their relationships with each other and with the master/mistress upstairs. They’re great plot devices and can be terrific characters in their own right, and possibly more interesting than the aristos upstairs. In The Rules of Gentility, one of the main secondary characters is Hen, the heroine’s maid, who’s Philomena’s cheerleader and critic.

What I found in my research was that every household was different; it’s the historian’s quandary of not knowing whether an example is cited because it’s the norm or outside the norm. Even the major “how-to” book by Sara and Samuel Adams, The Complete Servant (1825) may not be an example of how things were, but how the Adamses thought they should be. And Sara and Samuel certainly liked things to be done right!

By the Regency period servants were the largest workforce in England--as many as one in four people in Regency London may have been in service at some time in their lives--and increasingly feminized. Servants on average stayed about two years in a position, and many saw being in service as a shortcut to upward mobility; perks (leftovers that could be sold) and vails (tips) inflated modest salaries. Most households seemed to run on a balance of trust and mutual exploitation--for instance, if the person (the cook) ordering the butter is also allowed to sell excess fat (a perk), then there’s an obvious opportunity for abuse. And servants--particularly valets and lady’s maids--knew all their employers’ secrets.

Servants were also a visible sign of affluence. Even though employers were taxed a guinea a year per male servant, the wealthy kept ranks of liveried footmen (paid according to height!). Female servants, who didn’t wear formal uniforms, were paid less, and did most of the behind the scenes work--cleaning, making fires, carrying hot water and slops. Upper servants--butler, housekeeper, lady’s maid, valet--were expected to represent their master in household business matters and be well-dressed--fairly easy for the lady’s maid and valet who received the perk of discarded clothing.

I don’t want to make this post too long so please ask if you have specific questions about who did what in a household, and I’ll try to answer!

-Janet Mullany


Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love writing about servants as well. There's an erotic charge for me in that midrange they occupy between identity and function. And so many secrets, levels of understanding and communication.

So many possibilities. Perhaps the best recent novel I know, The Remains of the Day, runs with those possibilities so beautifully and almost unbearably.

Two questions, Janet (or anybody who's up on these things):

Do you find the film Gosford Park as accurate as I do? Can you find any errors in how it portrays the hierarchy and interactions of a large complement of servants in a country house (to me it seems flawless).

And I always forget this (and need it for my current mss, too): is a butler referred to Mr. Butler, or just Butler?

11:31 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

I think Gosford Park probably is very accurate of the late Victorian/Edwardian era--Helen Mirren's character actually says at one point that they like to do things the "old way," so the downstairs structure is deliberately anachronistic.

Butlers would be addressed by last name by the employers and as Mr. Lastname by the other servants.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Janet, what happened to the very old servants who were unable to work?

6:09 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Janet, every blog or workshop you do on this topic, I always learn so much more. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

Was it more a Victorian practice to have all their female servants in uniform?

Pam: I love Ishiguro's Remains of the Day as well as Hopkins' portrayal in the movie. Despite the relative modern period nature of the story compared to the Regency, the attitude to me could've very well have been tranferred unchanged 150 years back.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are so many wonderful possiblities with servant characters (I love the servants in Pam's "The Slightest Provocation"). There's a scene early in "Secrets of a Lady" (chapter 2) where the entire household is woken. I had to stop and figure out exactly how many servants Charles and Mélanie name them and sketch out rough details. It took a while, but it was great for adding texture to the household as I went on with the book.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

there was no hard and fast rule. Some servants, those who were close to the family, might be given a stipend and a small cottage on the estate. They might be given a sinecure position (at Erdigg, famous for its master/servant documentation, there's a portrait of an old woman who was hired to sweep cobwebs). Otherwise, they would go to live with relatives, and hopefully they'd retire with a nest egg of savings and a farewell cash present from their employers.

Typically women in their 50s went back into service--presumably because they were widowed. Otherwise servants tended to be quite young.


4:46 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Keira (hi again!)
the topic of servants' uniforms is a bit tricky in the Regency. There was no formal uniform but servants were generally recognizable. In the late 18c they tended to wear striped or checked aprons, but aprons were also a fashion accessory (correct, Kalen?). By the 1820s the print dress, cap and apron was pretty much the norm, and some employers frowned upon the practice of servants aping their betters. This may have been an issue if the lady of the house passed her clothing on to her servants! Or, if the household invested in a large quantity of fabric (which was very expensive) to be made into dresses for both servants and mistress.
Foreign visitors tended to comment on how well-dressed and fashionable female servants were in England, btw.

4:52 AM  
Blogger Lois said...

About names, I noticed this one thing in books that drives me nuts, but then I never thought to look it up so it wouldn't drive me nuts. ;) It seems servants tend to keep their names, except for a certain John Coachman. I guess my question is, how come? :)


8:38 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I remember that chapter in Secrets of a Lady, Tracy, and really enjoyed it. Glad you liked the servants in The Slightest Provocation. I've been fascinated by servants since The Bookseller's Daughter when the eponymous heroine finds herself in reduced circumstances and becomes a scullery maid (with the added advantage of being in a French kitchen) -- and for anybody researching the period leading to the French revolution, let me recommend a remarkably good book called Domestic Enemies: Servants and their Masters in Old Regime France, by Cissie Fairchilds.

And a question -- about another sort of servant, an English governess. If she were dissatisfied with her position (but had not dissatisfied her employers), how would she look for another situation? (The household is in London for the season.) I'm hoping for some sort of employment agency set-up.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Hmm, I've purposely avoided the topic of governesses b/c it's so huge. Jane Eyre runs an ad in the newspaper to find a job, doesn't she? I'd like to say yes, there were agencies, because it seems such a logical assumption to make, but I'm not sure.

If, as Jane Eyre did, a woman finished her education at a school and maybe taught there for a couple of years, I'd also like to assume that the school might help her find a position. Otherwise job-hunting would be done by word of mouth (like the ever-helpful Mrs. Elton in Emma).

12:35 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Lois, I'm not sure how far back the John Coachman name goes. I know that the Victorians liked to re-name their servants, either with the names of their predecessors or with more "suitable" names.

Similarly, cooks and housekeepers were addressed as "Mrs." regardless of marital status--again, something I've not been able to find an origin for.

3:37 PM  

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