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Originally published Sunday, December 15, 2013 at 3:03 AM

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‘Servants’: the real lives of butlers and maids

Lucy Lethbridge’s lively, accessible book “Servants” is a history of servants in Great Britain, from an era when everybody (even the servants) had servants to today’s servant job market, where opportunities are diminished but a butler can still pull down $80,000 a year.

Special to The Seattle Times

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

by Lucy Lethbridge

Norton, 385 pp., $27.95

Before “Downton Abbey,” how many of us knew that a butler is responsible for keeping the silverware in good order, that a lady’s maid’s employer always addresses her by her last name only, and that maids in proper households change their uniforms before dinner? For those intrigued by such details of a world now mostly gone, there’s Lucy Lethbridge’s thoughtful nonfiction book “Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times,” a tantalizing mixture of quirky anecdotes and moving recollections.

Despite its title, the book mostly focuses on the 20th century, beginning at a time when nearly everyone in Britain, except the very poorest of the poor, employed some sort of servant. (This wasn’t unique to Britain; young readers of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” may remember their puzzlement as to how, if the Marches were so poor that they went without Christmas presents, they managed to have a housekeeper.) The servant class in the prewar years, we’re told, was plentiful and cheap to retain; grand houses routinely employed dozens of servants — and, in the most posh homes, servants for the upper-ranking servants. In 1914, at the start of the war, 1.6 million people in Britain were employed in domestic service; less than half a century later, the number would fall to 100,000.

Lethbridge attributes the near-disappearance of service as a profession to a number of familiar reasons: increased job opportunities in wartime, causing those who might have gone into service to look elsewhere; the slow but steady modernization of British homes and customs, decreasing the need for manual labor (though early vacuum cleaners, it’s noted, cost the equivalent of half a housemaid’s yearly salary); the lessening number of aristocrats able and willing to maintain enormous, costly country homes. But she also examines the troubling nature of “the servant problem” — that being a servant meant not only hard work and low pay, but often a loss of self-respect; a handing-over of something of yourself. (It was routine, for example, for servants to be told that they must attend their employer’s church on Sunday, rather than their own.)

Lethbridge, a journalist, writes in accessible nonacademic prose, and her book is considerably livened by numerous additional voices. One former servant remembers, of old English houses, “a smell I’ve never forgotten — a combination of rich carpets, velvet hangings, polished floors and furniture, especially when it’s polished with bees wax and turpentine.” An investigative journalist posing as a scullery maid in the 1930s writes with amusement of how, when the elderly lady of the house asked for an evening malted-milk drink, it required eight different servants — housekeeper, scullery maid, kitchen maid, cook, footman, butler, head-housemaid, lady’s maid — to get it for her.

As the servant class fades away, we read of how “Upstairs Downstairs” in the 1970s ignited a new interest in below-stairs traditions (as did, more recently, “Downton Abbey”), and how employment agencies still exist in Britain to provide traditional servants for the ultrarich. (Wages, at least in this lofty echelon, are no longer skinflint: Experienced butlers can command 50,000 pounds — about $80,000 — or more annually.) But for the few who continue in service, the hours remain long and the work difficult. “It is as difficult as it has always been,” writes Lethbridge, nicely summing up a problem at the heart of the servant/employer relationship, “to negotiate by law the relationships of the private home.”

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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