THE BLOG
11/25/2013 10:25 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

How Accurate Is 'Downton Abbey'?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the chief pleasure for a British audience watching a historical drama serial lies in gleefully pouncing upon its errors and inaccuracies. The most assiduously eagle-eyed viewers then fire off indignant hand-written letters to the Daily Telegraph pointing out that roads did not have yellow lines in 1900 and that penny farthings were not invented in time to be featured in Pride and Prejudice. Downton Abbey offers a great deal of innocent fun in this regard, what with Matthew Crawley talking about "learning curves," the footmen wearing white tie when they shouldn't be and the appearance of a Ford Model T 20 years before its time; and of course there are far too FEW servants: where are all the housemaids -- there should be at least eight of them? But let's avert our eyes from the small stuff, the big picture of Julian Fellowes' Downton has many truthful things to tell us about the spirit of life among the servants downstairs in an English country house.

  • The footman Alfred’s great height
    A footman in a house the size and style of Downton Abbey would be expected to be well above average in height. The taller he was the more he could expect to be paid: Footmen advertising for work in the Times during the 1920s still stressed that they were nearly or over six feet. The same rules applied to front-of-house servant girls too: In Woburn Abbey in the 1930s, all the parlormaids were over five foot ten – making them an expensive rarity at a time when the average height for women was only five foot two.
  • That ladies maids were sneaky
    O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s lady’s maid, is a thoroughly nasty piece of work. This would ring true in many servants’ halls where ladies’ maids (and valets)’ proximity with their employers made them often viewed as untrustworthy. They had privileges associated with intimacy and were often accused of telling tales and stirring trouble. Those ladies’ maids who were French were regarded with even more suspicion and carried a dangerous whiff of foreign sexual liberality. In fact, despite perks such as cast-off clothes and travel, the ladies’ maid’s was often a lonely job with few friends below stairs and no real friendship above.
  • Marriage was freedom.
    The only escape from domestic service for a young maid was marriage. Anna the head housemaid is fortunate to have found Mr. Bates because, on the whole, the servants’ hall in a large house was a world of unmarried women: Mrs. Patmore the cook and Mrs. Hughes the housekeeper have no husbands –- the title of “Mrs.” was a mere honorific accorded to upper female servants. Poor Daisy the kitchenmaid at Downton knows that her chances for a husband must be seized –- which is why her unrequited attachment to Alfred the footman is so heartbreaking.
  • That butlers upheld the status quo.
    In his lugubrious demeanor and concern to maintain proprieties, the character of Mr. Carson the butler at Downton is right on the button. Butlers were the paterfamilias of the servants’ hall, shadows of the paterfamilias upstairs in the drawing room. Those real-life butlers who wrote their memoirs sound as though they had colluded in the caricature, such as Ernest King who wrote: “I fear perfection in all things became an obsession.” Still, for a conservative type with a fussy streak who liked to uphold the social status quo, butlering was a good job. It paid well (with the addition of generous tips) and it was a position of complete authority -- below stairs at least.
  • A Resistance to New-Fangled Technology
    Mrs. Patmore’s horror at the appearance of the electric mixer would have been all too typical in the 1920s. The grander the house, the more likely that modern conveniences were thought to be infra-dig. The British lagged far behind their European and American counterparts in their adoption of household technologies –- largely due to the cult of keeping large numbers of servants. Any device that billed itself as “labor-saving” such as electric toasters or steam-heated trouser presses, would have been considered very suburban. Several large country houses did not even install electricity until after the Second World War; the Duke of Bedford in the early 1930s insisted that brass plates saying “electric switch” be stuck above each socket in case his guests had never before encountered such a novelty.
  • Tom the Chauffeur.
    The marriage of Tom the IRA-supporting chauffeur and Lady Sybil Crawley should stretch to breaking point the credulity of even the most ardent Downton fan. However, there was something about chauffeurs that did indeed break the mould of the old-fashioned career servant. For one thing, they didn’t generally come from a service background but were engineers or mechanics by trade. They tended therefore to be free of the servility of the traditional servant -- the Drivers Handbook of 1900 even felt obliged to point out that chauffeurs shouldn’t think of joining in their employer’s conversations while driving. It doesn’t make the Tom/Lady Sybil romance any more convincing -– but if such relationship were to happen with any servant at all, it would probably have been with a chauffeur.
  • Mrs. Crawley and Ethel
    Housemaid Ethel Parks found herself pregnant by an officer convalescent at Downton during World War One and was instantly sacked without a reference –- making it impossible for her to find work. She refused to give up her baby and was forced into prostitution. Her rescue by Mrs. Crawley, who offers her work as a cook, is convincing: Domestic service was seen by philanthropic types such as Mrs. Crawley as the safest refuge for girls such as Ethel and there were many charities operating which “saved” young girls from the streets by securing them berths in servants’ quarters. D.r Barnardo’s was the best-known of these organizations, and each household into which a girl was placed would be closely vetted for its sound Christian values and teetotalism.

Lucy Lethbridge is the author of the new book Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times.