Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Necklace and Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs

The other night we were watching the first episode of a three-part BBC series, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, when with a jolt, I realized the necklace that the host, Dr. Pamela Cox, was wearing looked every familiar. Could it be the same necklace I own, and have worn many a time?

Cox wears the necklace in the low, damp tunnel workers used to get to the main house at Petworth.

 In fact, it was. The photograph above shows Pamela Cox in the necklace. The photograph below is my necklace.

Cox actually wore the necklace more than once: here you can see it with a different outfit, looking green in the light, though the stones are actually different pastel hews. I include the picture below because it shows a bit of the green ribbon the necklace ties with, an unusual feature in a modern necklace. In fact, in some shots in episode one, the green ribbon has fallen forward in a way it shouldn't have. I couldn't, however,  find any stills showing that. 

I racked my brains for when and where I purchased the necklace, which was inexpensive, probably no more than $20.00. My best memory is I bought in fall of 2012 at Marshall's when I was teaching a course at West Liberty University. This would concur with the series date: the first episode aired in September, 2012.

Much as I love this necklace, it struck me as odd that the host of BBC TV series would wear an inexpensive piece of jewelry made of plastic beads cut to look like faceted glass. Somehow, I expected something more glamorous or expensive or high quality from a television show lead. But then it occurred to me that such a simple, sturdy necklace is both striking and capable of withstanding shots outdoors in most weather, and in damp corridors, like the one above that connected servant quarters at Petworth to the main house shown in the first photo. I also like to think Cox was as taken with the necklace as I am.

It's interesting the exalted way we tend to view television. The inexpensive necklace is a reminder that TV hosts are no different from you and me.

I couldn't help but think of Maupassant's short story "The Necklace."  Madame Loisel, an ordinary middle class Parisian woman, is so in awe of wealth that she--and the reader--never question that the diamond necklace she borrows from her rich friend is real.

As for the program, the first episode's chief strength lay in actually taking us great homes and Jane and London sites such as Thomas Carlyle's London townhouse, where Jane Carlyle employed a maid of all work. Much of the information in the first episode is already common knowledge, at least if you have watched Downtown Abbey and Upstairs/Downstairs. However, I did learn that in the Victorian age, uniforms for servants became commonplace for the first time, and were used, of course, to distinguish rank in a class-obsessed society. I learned too that servants were the biggest group of working class employees. Far more people went into service than worked in mills or mines.

The second episode focused on the growing servant problem in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The "problem" was that fewer people were going to service, despite an increasing population. The rich and middle-class dealt with this problem by using workhouses and religious homes set up to provide for destitute children taken off the streets. These institutions began training them for service, primarily to become maids and laundresses, though some also became cooks.

This episode, more than the first, acted as a corrective to the happy "downstairs" depicted by Downtown Abbey. Some of the children from the workhouses were abused, including one ten-year-old girl, sent out as a maid-of-all-work, who was beaten black and blue by her mistress. The girl, to her credit, ran away.

The first attempts at labor organizing of servants highlighted some of the abuses: most servants worked 17 hour days, with a half day on Sunday. Maids campaigned, albeit unsuccessfully, for a 12-hour day, which as Cox put it, would have seemed like "heaven."

We also get a glimpse of the rough lives of the lower servants. The lowest of the low collected the waste material generated in the night by all the people of the house, including the other servants, by emptying the waste into heavy slop buckets. These were dragged downstairs and dumped into a special sink, where by pulling a cord (similar to a flush toilet) the waste was washed away. I imagine, too, that the slop buckets and the chamber pots all had to washed and  put back in place. This could not have been pleasant work to wake up to seven days a week.

Cox notes that even empty, the lidded slop buckets were heavy--and notes, too, what I have long suspected, that due to poor diet, and in many cases youth, the person doing the slops work would likely be small. Such young under servants also had to scrub floors and scour pots. This nightmarish, Dickensian side of the Victorian era was a reality for far too many people.

Cox also makes a link between new laws for schooling--making education compulsory to age 12 rather than age 10, which encouraged more working class children to go on the secondary school, and thus lowered the servant pool. One also must imagine that the extra two years of school drastically decreased the number of servants aged 10-12.

One wonders how people survived this brutal work regime. The complaints of employers that servants slacked off mightily once backs were turned must have been true: it would be the only way the servants would not have been worked to death. And we remember, too, that many people died young.

In the end, Cox said, it was health concerns rather than labor concerns that perhaps most helped the servants: alarms began to be raised about servants without any health insurance spending most of their lives either sleeping or working in dark, damp basements. Legislation was passed, though resisted by employers, to have a fund the employers would pay into to, so that servants could obtain medical care.

The common conditions of being in service before World War I would be considered a form of slavery today.

As we contemplate rolling back the clock to a pre-New Deal world, it might be helpful to ponder exactly what that means: the minimum wage, worker's comp, a forty-hour work week, and child labor regulations are not immutable laws of nature.

1 comment:

  1. Very good. Sometimes I avoid such shows lest I be given more sweet pap (nonsense) about the past -- the features accompanying Downton Abbey often did that. I wonder how much the two series were indebted to Carolyn Stedman's Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England. She argues that domestic service was the chief employment of working people even during the high point of factory work and shows the harsh conditions. I blogged on it:

    that's such an insightful way to regard the presenter's use of a necklace. Yes we turn them into numinous figures and forget they are wearing clothes just like ours, bought in the same way, not necessarily out of the BBC "fine costume" shop.

    Very good, enjoyable.