Fetishising the past

The final episode of Downton Abbey aired in the U.S. last week. It was wildly popular there, maybe even more so than in the UK, and I couldn’t bear to watch it, despite the glorious outfits and the Dowager Countess. And I will admit that I didn’t try that hard to watch; I am not a fan of Julian Fellowes’ writing. And I will admit further that that is a lot to do with politics. Fellowes is a Conservative life peer, from an extremely privileged background, and his view of aristocracy is necessarily coloured by that. Mine is coloured by the knowledge that 100 years ago, I would have been a kitchen maid or house maid, locked into a bedroom I shared with other servants at night, working up to 18 hours a day with one half day off a month. Maids were in a great deal of danger of sexual assault by both male servants and members of the family or their guests, and if they became pregnant they would lose both their job and their home, and be seen as the guilty party.

The life of a maid was extremely unhealthy, sleeping in close proximity to others in often damp, cold conditions; kitchens were hot and poorly ventilated, as were laundries. My great aunts who were maids all died young of respiratory disease.

I would like to see the lives of working class people portrayed more often in historical drama. I’d love to see Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs dramatised. Telling the post-World War 1 story that is very similar to my maternal grandmother’s- though my grandmother was a factory worker rather than domestic servant- it shows the type of service that was more common; service in middle class families rather than aristocracy.

Winifred Foley‘s memoirs would also make a great drama. It was initially serialised on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Winifred had many different experiences of service: as a maid of all work as well as working in a boarding house and women’s college. 

Finally, surely it’s time for a remake of KM Peyton’s Flambards trilogy? The books are a critical look at life above and below stairs, with horses and planes. They’re wonderful. 


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