Downton Abbey, Season 3

Real Servants Didn’t Have Time To Gossip
Talking television.
Feb. 4 2013 12:28 PM

Downton Abbey, Season 3

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Domestic service was backbreaking work, though you might not know it from this show.

Ed Speleers as Jimmy
Ed Speleers as Jimmy

Photo courtesy of Joss Barratt/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Editor’s note: For the benefit of American readers who haven’t yet seen Season 3 of Downton Abbey, please do your best to avoid spoilers when commenting.

June Thomas: Katherine, I’m so glad you were able to join me this morning to talk about Downton Abbey’s servant problem. I’m keen to hear your views since, as a writer of historical fiction, whose latest novel The House of Velvet and Glass has been called a sort of Downton Abbey set in Boston's Back Bay, I’m sure this is something you’ve thought about a lot.

After two and a half seasons, I was surprised how much this episode lingered on the question of what being in service really means to the characters who have become so familiar but whose motivations for taking the job in the first place haven’t been explored.

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Let’s begin with Daisy, finally moving her way up the servant’s hierarchy, but now herself a potential heiress, thanks to Mr. Mason’s generosity. She’s reluctant to leave the house to take over his farm. It’s easy to understand why she’d be nervous about leaving everything and almost everyone she knows to try something new, but he’s right to ask if great houses like Downton will even be around in 40 years’ time.

Katherine Howe: Hello, June, and thank you so much for inviting me to join your discussion. I was intrigued that this week's episode actually named "the servant problem," because if you look at magazines and etiquette manuals from the 1910s and 1920s, you'd think that ladies of leisure had nothing else to talk about. It was a veritable epidemic, the lack of good and respectful servants. In the United States the "problem" was even more acute, partly because, despite the excesses of the Gilded Age, working people didn't consider service an appealing career choice, since class consciousness worked differently Stateside. That's why in America in this period you'd be more likely to hear a maid referred to as "help" rather than as a "servant."

I'm really rooting for Daisy to take over Mr. Mason’s tenancy. For one thing, she's already been at Downton for eight years, and she's only just been promoted to Mrs. Patmore's assistant. If she stays in service, she can't marry. There's nowhere for her to go, except to become Mrs. Patmore herself. Would the sense that the age of the manor houses was passing have really been as widespread as they're making out here? I'm not so sure about that. But I'd still like to see Daisy find her path to the middle class.

A few years ago PBS aired a proto-reality show called Manor House, which you should definitely see, if you can find it. It took a modern upper- middle-class family and installed them in an English country house as aristocracy, and then placed people from various backgrounds in the servant positions, many of whom had had grandparents in service and are themselves now comfortably middle class. One piece that I think is missing from the representations of downstairs life in Downton Abbey is the fact that service was backbreaking work, for 16 or even 18 hours a day. It may look like Daisy is shying away from taking over the farm because of the work involved, but her current job is just a hard, if not harder.

Thomas: I'm also hoping that Daisy will make the big move from kitchen to farmhouse. That farm tenancy is, after all, her rightful inheritance, not to mention her karmic reward, as William's widow. When Mr. Mason was making his pitch, I flashed back to Season 1, when Lord Grantham was trying to persuade Matthew to accept his role as heir to the estate. It was a big change for him, too, and Matthew doesn't seem to have regretted leaving Manchester.

I want Daisy to make the most of her life, so in the end, I agree with Salon's Willa Paskin: "I wish for her a life that contains more than another 40 years in service, but if she could just see it through for another two seasons, I would be ever so grateful."

I think you're right that Downton is exaggerating the extent to which people in 1920 would see change on the horizon, but they would probably know that conditions were improving in the factories, which in the North at least were the main alternative to a life in service or as farm workers.

It was interesting to hear Daisy respond to the footman's ignorant teasing about Mr. Mason being his own boss. "He takes his orders from the sun and the snow and the wind and the rain," she told him. Let's face it, whether it's the lord of the manor interrupting the servants' evening meal by ringing his bell, or crops needing to be harvested, there's very little rest for assistant cooks or tenant farmers.

Howe: I continue to be surprised by—maybe even skeptical of—the familiarity evinced between upstairs and down. In Downton, everyone from both sides of the divide just stands around in drawing rooms asking each other how they're feeling all day. Yet service manuals from that period required housemaids to be invisible to the families they served—truly invisible, up to and including hiding when a member of the family is coming. In many of these houses, the network of service corridors and stairs was so extensive that you could walk from one end of the house to the other without being seen. That's true of Newport mansions as well. Lord Grantham would talk to Carson, Lady Grantham would talk to Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, and O'Brien, and that's about it. Would Lord Grantham's entire day be brightened to hear that Bates was getting out of prison? I mean, it would be nice to think so, but frankly, I'd think not.

Thomas: Well, Lord Grantham has a special bond with Bates because Bates was his soldier-servant in the Boer War, but I'm with you, I've never quite believed that even an enlightened toff like Lord G would be so familiar with the help. (One need only look at class relations in Britain today to see that Brits still have a hard time talking with people from different backgrounds.) I was glad to see the other servants acknowledge that Anna would be grieving for Sybil because they spent so much time together when Anna "looked after her"—that is, got her out of bed, ran her bath, dressed her, and did whatever else ladies maids do for their ladies—but it seems like a bit of 21st-century fantasy.

I was shocked to hear Edith say, “I sometimes wonder if I should learn to cook." She’s desperately trying to find her place as an unmarried lady, but other than a longing for skills that will allow her to make a real contribution to the world, that seemed like an idea that will go nowhere. She isn't going to work for a living—not unless things at Downton get a great deal more dire—and it seems unlikely that she'll ever cook her own dinner. Ethel, however, saw a real benefit from improving her kitchen skills. Mrs. Patmore's notes and tips might have saved her job.

I know there's one servant you'd like to see more of: Miss Reed, Cora's mother's cheeky American maid.

Howe: Yes! Bring back Miss Reed! I'd like to imagine that she's the one who brought the foxtrot downstairs, but that's probably just my rank nationalism talking. But if Miss Reed came back, it would mean that Cora's mother is back, too. Only Julian Fellowes could confirm this, but I've been theorizing that Cora is based on Consuelo Vanderbilt, a New York society girl who took her American railroad money to Britain to become Duchess of Marlborough, at the insistence of her overbearing mother, a Mobile, Ala., belle named Alva Erskine Smith. Can we talk about how great a name "Alva" would have been for Shirley MacLaine? Heck, maybe I'll change my name to Alva.

I am curious what the writers are going to do with Lady Edith, after the drubbing they gave her at the altar. I took her cooking comment as a reference back to Sybil, who made Mrs. Patmore teach her how to cook ahead of her nursing duties in the Great War. Part of Sybil's appeal wasn't only her basic goodness, it was also her ability to make herself useful. Perhaps Edith is looking for a way to take a page from her more practical sister. If only there were a handsome groundskeeper for Edith to dally with.

Thomas: Alva! I mean, Katherine! Now all I want to do is imagine Lady Edith's future life as Mrs. Oliver Mellors, or at least as his lover.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. Follow her on Twitter.

Katherine Howe is the New York Times best-selling author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and The House of Velvet and Glass, newly out in paperback from Hyperion/Voice. She is a lecturer in the American Studies program at Cornell, where she teaches a class on historical fiction.