OK ! … I admit it ! … I watched the whole of series two of ‘Downton Abbey’, although at times I found it a bit of a struggle.
Now I’m no expert on the lives of the British aristocracy in the early part of the 20th Century, but I do know a little about the lives of their servants, as a number of my mother’s aunts and cousins were “in service” at that time to wealthy families who they always referred to as “the gentry”; and I know, from my mother, that it was a very hard life indeed, where “the lower orders” were treated like dirt. My mum was always proud of the fact that my grandmother never put her or her sisters “into service”, for even though life was far from easy for them, it was a lot more pleasant than what was little better than a life of poorly paid ’slavery’ in the homes and on the lands of those same ”gentry”. Servants often worked eighteen hours a day with only half a day off once a week, for an average wage of around £15 per year.
Knowing this, I found it hard to relate to the cosy life “below stairs” of Downton’s few servants, and their friendly relationships with their ‘masters’ and ‘mistresses’, for I’m sure that Edwardian employers, as a rule, took no notice of their servants and had not the slightest interest in their lives. They would not have been in the least concerned about their welfare, health or working conditions, servants only existed for the comfort of the master of the house and his family.
I mention the “few servants” because a house and estate the size of Downton Abbey would have had a small army of retainers, not just a butler, a valet, a housekeeper, a couple of footmen, a cook, a chauffeur and two or three maids.
I know that it was just TV entertainment and that Julian Fellowes is no Charles Dickens, but hardly anything seemed to ring true (at times it was pure comedy) about this drama, from the sanitised trenches of the Somme to the Earl of Grantham dressing up as a colonel as The Great War (and many other events) passed him by ‘in the blink of an eye’.
I’m afraid that this was just a beautifully costumed ’soap’ for the masses, most of whom will believe that life was really like that back then, in what is still often referred to as …
… “those good old days” !