Tasha Alexander | Upstairs, Downstairs
October 17, 2013
When I started doing research for Behind the Shattered
Glass, I wanted to focus not just on Emily’s glittering life above stairs.
As she has developed as a character, she has grown from sheltered society girl
to an enlightened woman with a social conscience, and I felt it was time we see
the other half of her household. The half that makes her life possible—her servants.
The lives of Victorians in service was, in many ways, bleak. Their work days
started before dawn and went until late in the evening. Some families insisted
that their housemaids remain out of sight—if any of the family or their visitors
spotted one, she would be dismissed at once. Footmen were valued for their
height as well as their skills, and the staff were commonly treated much like
furniture. All of this horrifies us today, but there was another side to life
A position in a household where the family was kind and the accommodations
pleasant was to be much envied. Servants received room and board, and were often
able to save a considerable amount of money during their employment. They might
even receive an annuity when their masters died. A valued member of the staff
would be taken care of when too old to work, often given a cottage on the estate
and a small pension. Anyone who has read Brideshead Revisited is aware of the
possibility that the children of England’s so-called great families might find
themselves more attached to their nannies than their mothers—and the children
they cared for adored them even through their adulthoods.
In contrast, those who took advantage of the jobs created by the Industrial
Revolution (the term came into use in 1884), worked grueling hours in terrible
conditions. They were paid badly, and out of their wages had to house and feed
their families. More often than not, their circumstances were worse than those
who chose a life in service. Nonetheless, they valued the freedom to choose
where they lived, what they ate, and how they dressed. They had considerably
more liberty than the average servant. Their rooms might be small and grim, but
they were theirs.
Davis, Emily’s long-time butler, argues against factory life, preferring
service. I read countless stories about men and women like him—who took deep
satisfaction from their work, who enjoyed their lives immensely. But not
everyone in any household—or any workplace, for that matter—is content. Pru,
Emily’s disgruntled kitchen maid, doesn’t share Davis’ opinions, and views
herself as exploited. Yet there was opportunity for advancement in service. A
kitchen maid could work her way up to Cook, a highly respected position that
came with better rooms, more freedom, and higher wages. A parlor maid could set
her sights on becoming a housekeeper, a footman on someday serving as a butler.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, however, fewer and fewer people were
willing to be servants—and by the time World War I had ended, devastating the
population of Europe, almost no one considered life in service to be an
Contentment below stairs depended on those doing the work accepting the idea
that, because they were not born into the right family, they did not deserve a
better life. They ought not aspire to rise above their station. This is
repellant to us today, and it is difficult for the twenty-first century mind to
grasp the idea that most nineteenth century servants wholly accepted the belief
that they were simply not as good as their employers. The whole way of life
falls apart when people begin to reject the class system.
I found a surprising number of individuals who did just that. In particular, I
was taken with the story of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh (a man admittedly
eccentric, wild, and much-prone to scandal). Late in his life, he was walking in
the grounds of his estate, and heard a woman singing. Charmed by her voice, he
inquired as to her identity, and discovered she worked in his dairy. Mary Ann
Bullock soon found herself being courted by her employer, and accepted his
proposal of marriage. Sir Harry sent her to Paris for a quick education, and
they were married upon her return. As I delved more into my research, I found
tale after tale of highborn gentlemen who married maids. I cannot imagine these
marriages were easy for the wives, who would not be readily accepted by the rest
of society. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that they did happen, more
often than we would imagine.
Marrying the boss is not a reliable plan for upward mobility, and it can come as
no surprise that the class system and its strict divisions could not survive the
twentieth century. In the last decade of the nineteenth, it would have seemed
implacable—at least to the upper classes. Emily, however, wants a better world,
a world in which people are judged by their merit rather than their station. As
more and more members of her class began to share this opinion, and as more and
more members of the working class began to push back against their limited
options, society began to change.
But as I look back, reading memoirs and letters and diaries, I find that there
are many stories that suggest the servants, in some ways, had better and richer
lives than their masters. A maid could make something of her life. A wealthy
girl was at the mercy of her parents and then her husband. Expensive clothes and
luxurious trappings do not make for a happy life—and these girls had no way out
of their gilded cages. Throughout most of the century women could not own
property; everything they had went to their husbands. Marital rape was legal,
and divorced women more often than not had their children taken from them.
Where would you rather find yourself: Trapped by marriage? Laying fires in a
great house at five in the morning? Doing factory work? The question is not so
simple as it seems at first glance…
45 comments posted.
Re: Tasha Alexander | Upstairs, Downstairs
at first I thought this would be a tough decision, but it's not. I'd rather lay fires at 5am and have my own life to live even if I was poor. I have a strong will and I couldn't be trapped in a marriage to some disgusting old man that I didnt like.
(Rhonda Brittingham 9:32am October 15, 2013)
the book sounds so good , i know i wouldnt beable to be
trapped in a loveless marriage with a man i didnt like either
(Denise Smith 12:06pm October 17, 2013)
Hmm...it's between trapped in marriage or laying fires at 5am. I'm just glad I really don't have to make such a difficult decision.
(Marcy Shuler 12:31pm October 17, 2013)
It would be difficult to have to make a decision from the
three choices. However, I imagine that laying the fires
at five in the morning would be the best one for a fairly
(L Folstad 1:02am October 17, 2013)
Each one hs positives and negatives - need more information about each option.
(Mary Chin 1:20am October 17, 2013)
When you really think about the jobs or lives the people led
back then it is not easy to choose which one would be
preferable. I know that I cannot. There are so many
factors to think of and any one of them could possible not
turn out the way you would think. I think service would
would be the best choice for looking back and choosing.
Though, I am certainly not a morning person and I cannot
function without the right amount of sleep and I know
servants did not get that much.
(Rhiannon Rowland 1:28am October 17, 2013)
Victorian life looked glamorous with the clothing, but as you've stated, the life was anything- but!! Regardless of the choice one makes, the life would be hard in one way or the other. The only scenario I could think of that would be palatable would be to grow up in a wealthy family as an only child, and before reaching marrying age, to lose both Parents to a terrible accident. That way you wouldn't be betrothed to someone, would have the wealth, and would have the family wealth to grow up, and make the choices in life on your own terms. Anything outside of that sounds pretty bleak, and although this day and age is heading down a slippery slope, I wouldn't want to live in that era!! I'm anxiously looking forward to reading your book, however, since it has peaked my interest.
(Peggy Roberson 8:13am October 17, 2013)
There is nothing worse than to be married to someone you don't love. I'd rather be a maid and work my fingers off every day but have a life...limited as it was. I would love to read this book. Thanks for the great giveaway
(Bonnie Capuano 8:39am October 17, 2013)
I think laying fires at five would be the best choice. Book sounds really good.
(Jean Patton 8:40am October 17, 2013)
Sounds like a fascinating read!
(Sharon Cook 8:52am October 17, 2013)
I love this time period, looks like a great book!
(Margaret Branca 10:04am October 17, 2013)
The book sounds FANTASTIC, I love reading about English society. The life of a servant wouln't have been easy but to be a "Young Gel" of the Ton at that time would have beenharder I think. To be forced into a marriage I didn't want and depending on my husband for money would be horrendus. I think I would choose to be a "Tabby" Bluestocking (too old & too smart for a husband). Although marrying a rich, sickly, old man has its advantages (A widow COULD inherit money, land etc & was given more sexual freedom that a "Miss" or wife.
(Mina Gerhart 10:11am October 17, 2013)
I agree the choice is not simple. There are pros and cons to everything. Not sure what I would pick.
However, your book sounds great and would be a fantastic read.
(Lori Yost 10:19am October 17, 2013)
Laying the fires at 5:00 a.m. is drudgery and it is for the
strong and healthy. Your novel sounds memorable and
(Sharon Berger 10:21am October 17, 2013)
In large houses the staff at least ate well and were provided with clothing and beds. The Great War took staff away, for soldiers and for factory work, and regular wages with different standards for women began to eat away at the base of works for service. if I was around at that time I'd probably have tried to work with horses, though women weren't supposed to do that. Maybe I'd have trained them for side saddle.
(Clare O'Beara 10:28am October 17, 2013)
Gee! This is a tough choice. None sound good to me, but I definitely don't want to be trapped by factory work or a loveless marriage. I guess my best choice is laying fires at 5 a.m.
(Anna Speed 11:17am October 17, 2013)
I believe that all choices would be honorable to provide ones livelihood, all would be difficult regardless of choice. I would prefer to lay fires at 5 am....as I am an early riser and it would be more suitable for me. Don't we all have it much easier in this day, thankfully.
(C Culp 11:49am October 17, 2013)
It is indeed a tough choice - but I can't wait to read your newest book. Thank you so much for the chance to win. And best of luck with this newest book - and all you do.
(Nancy Reynolds 11:51am October 17, 2013)
The choices aren't very good, but the book sounds like a good read.
(Rita Wray 1:48pm October 17, 2013)
The three are touch choices but I think I'd rather be trapped by marriage. With marriage, you have a modicum of freedom that comes along with it and, presumably, the husband would only want to do "his duty" to get an heir. Then one would have their children, friends, and family to keep them entertained - all with the respectability and status of being in a marriage. And, who knows.... Maybe one could entice the husband to fall in love, or at least realize that he liked you enough to want to try to see you happy.
(Brandi Brennan 2:22pm October 17, 2013)
I don't like any of those options - I think I'd like to run a
country inn with a loving family and many local friends.
(Diane Sallans 2:29pm October 17, 2013)
I would rather be trapped by marriage. Not too good at being told what to
do. The book sounds awesome. Would love to read.
(Vicki Hancock 2:33pm October 17, 2013)
from what i read in hisittorys that the bed maid or servant were mostly slave the family own and they were suppose to get up at a day light and make sure every was down before the owner come down for breakfast but i like the book cover and info you have an would love to read a dn blog on it
(Desiree Reilly 2:41pm October 17, 2013)
None of these options are desirable. I don't know which I
would choose - maybe an arranged marriage could be
(Marguerite Guinn 2:45pm October 17, 2013)
I think I'm awfully glad I was born in the mid 1900's so I didn't have to make some of the decisions that people had to make earlier.
(Sue Farrell 2:49pm October 17, 2013)
They're all hard, guess I'd choose the bad marriage.
(Theresa Norris 3:22pm October 17, 2013)
laying fires at five sounds like the best of the three for me; would not mind doing factory work but definitely do not want to be trapped in a marriage
(Shirley Younger 3:40pm October 17, 2013)
Not really a simple choice but would say laying fires at 5:00.
(Leslie Davis 6:02pm October 17, 2013)
I would be laying the fire at 5 a.m. and the Master would come in and notice me. Then he would fall in love with me and I would be the Mistress of the Manor and live there happily ever after. I love Victorian novels and love your writing.
(Patricia (Pat) Pascale 6:29pm October 17, 2013)
I'd rather be warm than cold.
(Janet Gould 7:26pm October 17, 2013)
The castle on the front looks like Downton Abby
(Callie Stuck 9:02pm October 17, 2013)
Your blog made being a house servant the best choice.
(Sheila True 9:20pm October 17, 2013)
I am certainly intrigued by this book. Keeping my fingers crossed for the
win! Thank you!
(Melanie Backus 9:22pm October 17, 2013)
Wow, Congrats on your new book: BEHIND THE SHATTERED GLASS.
I like the book cover too! I would probably be trapped in a
marriage as long as I am not being beat up and abused. I
would use the wealth and the power of a rich husband to make
life better for the workers in the factories and the workers
and servants in the mansions. I would serve the people to
make their lives and wages better for everyone. We the
People!!! I would love to win and read your book this Fall.
Thank You very much. Cecilia CECE
(Cecilia Dunbar Hernandez 9:39pm October 17, 2013)
I would be trapped in a marriage wishing my life away. I would even be tempted to have an affair at this point or maybe elope to the continent with my lover to start a new life. I'll be trying to escape to a better but scandalous situation.
(Kai Wong 10:30pm October 17, 2013)
Thank you for your post and giveaway, Tasha. All three
possibilities are terrible. But if I had to choose one, I'd be
a rich woman trapped in a loveless marriage. If I'm going to
be miserable, I'd better be wearing the latest Paris fashions!
(Mary Anne Landers 10:30pm October 17, 2013)
I guess it would be what works the best of the three evils, and keep an eye
open for opportunity
(Darci Paice 10:55pm October 17, 2013)
thanks for the giveaway and ya rich woman in a loveless marriage but have all that I wanted lol
(Patricia Lambert 1:41pm October 18, 2013)
Congratulations on your new book! I'm looking forward to reading. I really enjoy this period in history. A fascinating time with so many inequities. I know for me, I can rule out factory worker right off the bat!! I think I'd probably choose being a house servant over being in a loveless marriage.
(Jacki Delecki 3:19pm October 18, 2013)
None of the choices would give you an enjoyable life. I'd have to choose laying fires at 5 am. I think I could tolerate being a house servant during this time period if treated decently. I wouldn't mind the daily tasks.
(Linda Luinstra 5:08pm October 18, 2013)
That's tough... being a servant may be better...
(May Pau 7:18pm October 18, 2013)
I'd take the factory work or laying fires. At least working in
a great house, I'd be fed & have a roof over my head.
(Mary Preston 6:04am October 19, 2013)
Very interesting post on Victorian servants. Since none of the choices appeal to me, I am glad I didn't live in that time period. If I had to choose, I would be a servant and hope to be treated fairly.
(Bonnie Hometchko 1:03am October 22, 2013)
Be a servant and hope the people are nice
(Patricia Lambert 1:53pm October 22, 2013)
I'd rather be the master or mistress and not a servant. The
art of running a household involved many people, all
(Alyson Widen 7:03pm October 31, 2013)
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