The Lives of Servants

Yesterday I asked you for some advice on books set in, or written by authors from, Iceland. In a few hours I will be whizzing off there and may just have some of your recommendations in my luggage with me. I say I may as this is one of five or six posts that will be going live while I am there, so you won’t even know I am gone. Anyway today I want your recommendations for another sort of reading material that I am hankering after… reading about servants.


This might sound a little bit random, but recently servants and their history have really taken a hold of me. This probably started off a good while back when Downton Abbey, though I have to say that I have started both series two and series three, after adoring series one, and alas have given up with them both – its lost a certain something, even Maggie’s lines aren’t as good as they once were. What has really made me fascinated, and sparked this interest, is the wonderful BBC series ‘Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs’ presented by Dr Pamela Cox.

Starting from the Victorian era and on to the not too distant past over three episodes, Dr Cox looks at how the life of domestic servants has changed, their conditions and the struggle of power and rites. Imagine a younger Mary Beard talking enthusiastically about the Victorians, instead of Romans, and you can almost get the gist and I am sure you will understand why we have been gripped.

It has also been making me think about my house, which is late Georgian/early Victorian, and the history of its predecessors and servants. How do I know we have servants? Well we often have our lovely 78 year old neighbour come round for dinner who lives in the attic of our building and outside her door are the servant’s bells. Well, it gets better… I was musing about this on Twitter when a lovely man named Matthew contacted me as he is a genealogist and looks into families and the history of houses, he has been doing my house for free very kindly and look what he found out, not only did we (well I say we, but really its they) have a nurse maid and three servants in the house, one of them came all the way from Switzerland – click on the image below and you’ll see.

1901 census

Slowly but surely I am finding more and more out. We have had a few deaths in the house and also some births, sadly one birth was also one of the deaths a few months later, we have even seen an advert for the cook who would have lived here. Fascinating!

What I want now though is to be able to read even more about the lives these servants might have had, what they did and the atmosphere they did it in and I wondered if you had any recommendations. Alas Dr Pamela Cox hasn’t written one but I know Judith Flanders has a book called ‘The Victorian House’ which I have ordered from the library, but I would love to know of more, especially any diaries of domestic staff from the time. Can you help?



Filed under Book Thoughts

14 responses to “The Lives of Servants

  1. Great minds think alike! I just made an “Upstairs/Downstairs” list for my book salon.

    Here are some of the lesser-known titles you might want to look into (non-fiction is marked with an asterisk): Below Stairs* (Margaret Powell), A Countess Below Stairs (Eva Ibbotson), The House at Riverton (Kate Morton), The House at Tyneford (Natasha Solomons), Lady’s Maid (Margaret Forster), Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854–1909): A Portrait with Husbands* (Sally Svenson), Loving (Henry Green), Maisie Dobbs (Jacqueline Winspear), Mary Reilly (Valerie Martin), The Shooting Party (Isabel Colegate), To Marry an English Lord* (Gail MacColl, Carol McD Wallace), and What the Butler Winked At* (Eric Horne).

    Hope this helps (and that the BBC series is eventually shown here)!

    • Oooh this list is wonderful thank you, who knew I would have to book mark one of my own pages for a list of wonderful reads.

      What is your book salon, do tell how it works and so on!

      • Funny you should ask, since we actually just picked this topic for next time, and so it will be the first topic in my online version of the salon at Goodreads in January.

        The book salon started in my former office when a bunch of us realized we didn’t like traditional book clubs and decided we wanted to do one based around themes. You can read more about how it works here. There are also a bunch of topics and book lists for people wanting to try it themselves.

        Even though I now work at home, we still meet every 4-6 weeks and I know a number of people online who are interested in the concept so I’ve decided to use Goodreads for a virtual version and see how it goes. I’ll send you an invite via Goodreads when I get it set up later this month. Anyone else interested can friend me here
        and I’ll send you an invite as well.

      • I am really interested in this idea so definitely definitely definitely put me on the list of people to notify about it! Sounds exciting!

  2. Besides Below Stairs mentioned above, I’ve also read Rose: My Life in Service by Rosina Harrison, who was the lady’s maid for Lady Astor. I’ll look forward to seeing what others recommend. 🙂

    • I love it when its the true accounts, I find fiction wonderful of course, but there is something about these true life stories of ordinary people at the time that are so fascinating now.

  3. Ruthiella

    For a fictional take on servants and masters, try “Loving” by Henry Green. Reading it reminded me of the movie Godsford Park.

  4. I like reading about them but I seem to have read only books where they are just part of the story. I like the domestic trivia involved as well.

  5. Alison P

    I had exactly the same reaction to the “Servants” programme by Dr Pamela Cox and bought a copy of Judith Flanders book The Victorian House as a result. I can highly recommend Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster – a fictional account of Elizabeth Wilson’s time as lady’s maid to Elizabeth Browning. Even better is the unabridged audiobook version read by Carole Boyd – she really brings the maid’s voice to life.

    • Wasn’t it the most wonderful show Alison? I loved it. I was gutted it was only three episodes, I wanted more.

      I have The Victorian Home from the library, I am saving it for the festive period as its HUGE!

  6. The most obvious one that springs to mind is ‘The Help’, but you may have already read it. I am a fairly new follower, so I’m not sure if you’ve mentioned it before or not 🙂

    • I have indeed read that Kirsten but I was a big fan of it. I also think its a great suggestion as all the ones I was thinking of were pre 1900, I forget about the books like The Help that are set so much nearer to the present day.

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