I am not foul Mr Carson. I may not be the same as you but I am not foul.
November 17, 2014 8:58 PM   Subscribe

"With the fifth series of Downton Abbey having recently drawn to a close, I have taken some time to consider why domestic service dramas fascinate me so much."

"When I’m not writing and researching, I generally watch a shed load of old telly that in turn makes me research and write some more. Of late I've been revisiting The Duchess of Duke Street and Upstairs Downstairs after conducting a series of oral interviews with my Nan about her life, and digging through the family archive that she has. My family have lived on Lord Sheffield’s Estate in East Sussex for over seven generations, and the vast majority of my ancestors who were in his service are remembered in these dusty, fascinating boxes. Considering that by the late nineteenth century, domestic service provided the majority of employment for women in Britain, it is probable that domestic service has featured, at some point, within a great number of our family trees. Beyond the allurement of corsets and candelabras upstairs, these widespread familial connections to histories from below can help us to understand why domestic service remains such an attraction in popular culture. As Alison Light suggests, domestic service remains deep in our ‘collective psyche’; it has the power to conjure ideas of deference, belligerence, resentment and envy for a way of life that seemingly no longer exists." ("Downstairs Queers: Homosexuality within Domestic Service Dramas" by Owen Emmerson.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (25 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
We still eat great-great-Grandma’s Christmas Pudding that she served as Cook at ‘the big house’

My, they should probobly make another one soon.
posted by The Whelk at 9:15 PM on November 17, 2014 [11 favorites]

Wow, so looking forward to reading this. I watched the last half of Gosford Park on Showtime this evening and I was thinking about how much more I understand the plot now after 4 years of Downton Abbey than I did the first few times I watched it. I was also thinking about what happened to all those people, where did they all go? So yeah very timely post!
posted by bleep at 9:31 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well there's also the bit where the Ryan Phillipe character is exposed as not a Valet and tries to join the upstairs world and gets reprimanded trying to still be familiar with the head of the staff "You can't play both worlds" and so on.

So the villainous queer servant is a trope in these kinds of dramas but do they ever get away with it? Like, yes! the nancy-boy butler stole all our silver and absconded with Meryl's fortune and now lives like a king in Patagonia!
posted by The Whelk at 9:36 PM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Trope or well-worn trick from one-trick pony, I don't know.
posted by bleep at 9:38 PM on November 17, 2014

Anyway Ryan Phillipe's character wasn't gay.
posted by bleep at 9:40 PM on November 17, 2014

Of late I've been revisiting The Duchess of Duke Street

Hey I forgot all about that series. And it's all up on YouTube. But if you want to watch the show, don't read the article yet, too many spoilers.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:59 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sexual orientation: queer under-butler. Has a nice ring to it.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 10:01 PM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

> So the villainous queer servant is a trope

See also: Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. Probably.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 10:02 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

everyone in that movie/story has it out for the Second Mrs. de Winter, Mrs. Danvers just makes it all sexual.
posted by The Whelk at 10:07 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

So the villainous queer servant is a trope in these kinds of dramas but do they ever get away with it?

Have you seen The Servant? Not a costume drama, but definitely worth a mention if the topic is Questionable Valets.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:33 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sexual orientation: questionable valets.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 10:37 PM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

well his life is kind of crashed at the end but while I consider being sexually menaced by Dick Bogarde to be an okay situation I'm not sure that counts.
posted by The Whelk at 10:37 PM on November 17, 2014

(wrong thread comment edited)

I'm going with Addison DeWitt cause he's coded EVIL QUEER even if we never get any proof, and he totally wins the bastard.
posted by The Whelk at 10:43 PM on November 17, 2014

I've been quietly seething at the lazy writers who loaded up Thomas Barrow with every sort of character weakness, flaw and failing. It's as if they are insisting, "This is a gay character in the Edwardian period and he's altogether evil and bad." Mr. Carson states the writer's view as much as society's, and Thomas's bid for dignity and understanding falls on deaf ears. They've trashed him so thoroughly that even I can't work up much sympathy for him despite really resenting the way the character is presented. Don't like Thomas but it has nothing to do with his being gay--that's actually the sweetest thing about him.
posted by Anitanola at 12:09 AM on November 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

Sexual orientation: questionable valets.

Great band name: The Questionable Valets
posted by chavenet at 1:12 AM on November 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

Agree with bleep. Ryan Phillipe's character was just a cynical opportunist (at least that was my read).

Now that I live in a place where it's pretty common to have live-in help I've realized just how uncomfortable the mere idea of servants makes me. You can't pick up after yourself? Do you own laundry, watch your own kids? It feels like a moral failing.
posted by orrnyereg at 1:36 AM on November 18, 2014

Having domestic employees is not a moral failing in and of itself. Having domestic employees and looking past them as if they don't exist is inexcusable. Respect the people who work for you, be a good boss, don't take advantage of people.
posted by double bubble at 1:54 AM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can't pick up after yourself? Do you own laundry, watch your own kids? It feels like a moral failing.

You probably don't mill your own flour either, or perform your own appendectomy, or sanitise your own shit and transport it away from your house. Is there a difference?
posted by emilyw at 3:41 AM on November 18, 2014 [8 favorites]

You can't pick up after yourself? Do you own laundry, watch your own kids? It feels like a moral failing.

Until the invention of washing machines laundry was an epically time consuming undertaking. Even the poorest tried to send out their laundry to be washed by someone else.

I have read that one household appliance is sort of equivalent to one domestic servant, so if now you have a refrigerator, dishwasher, and vacuum cleaner you would have had three servants in the pre-appliance era.
posted by apricot at 4:52 AM on November 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

My Irish grandparents worked on a huge estate on" Millionaire's Row" in Morristown, NJ. At its height the estate employed near 1000 people, the Irish mostly inside and taking care of the animals (Grandma was a maid, Grandpop took care of horses) and the Italians worked outside as gardeners and masons. Most of the immigrants in town were employed on the estates, not much more than serfs. If you had decent employers it was not so bad, as everyone you knew was poor too, but if they were nasty you had little recourse.

My Dad said the butlers often got rich as they stole everything they could. His Ma often brought home leftovers like creamed spinach that the rich folk did not finish.

My great-aunt Brigid came to America first, worked for 20 years as a maid and sent money for passage to all her brothers from their impoverished farm in Co. Galway, then went back to Galway to an arranged marriage with a local man that her father set up to keep the farm in the family. The brothers, including my grandpop, stayed in America, and my second cousins still live on the farm my grandpop came from.

Plenty of "Downstairs" history here in America as well as the British Isles.
posted by mermayd at 5:19 AM on November 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

Lest you fear those days have gone - "The Queen Of Clarence House: Backstairs Billy".

"Almost immediately, Talon and The Queen Mother hit it off. According to insiders, on one occasion she heard him gossiping with another male servant below stairs and called down: "When you old queens have finished, this old Queen would like a gin and tonic."

Equally, lunch guests at the palace quickly warmed to Talon’s charms.

"Gin and tonics from Billy consisted of nine-tenths gin and one tenth tonic," a former servant revealed to the Daily Mail newspaper. "No use putting your hand over the glass, he pours it through your fingers."

In his company, it seemed the Queen Mother—usually seen as the epitome of class and austerity—became what could be described as a camp cabaret girl. (I would dare to say "fag hag," but that may risk treason.)

As the Daily Mail reports, "Then there was the day Talon took Her Majesty to Elton John's Windsor home for a cup of tea and she had foxtrotted up and down the room with the flamboyant singer, clad in one of his Versace jackets, rendering everyone, including Billy, helpless with laughter."
posted by Devonian at 5:33 AM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was also thinking about what happened to all those people, where did they all go?

If the employers were decent folk, they probably made out alright.

This summer I went to the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, which ultimately was owned by a childless couple in the Vanderbilt family. When they died, they didn't have any heirs save for one niece - they left the main house to the niece, and all the rest of their estate to the staff. The niece didn't actually want to live there, so the staff all cashed out and retired, as they were able to buy their own houses.

What's more, those Vanderbilts only used that house as a summer vacation house, so most of the time it was only the staff that was on hand at the place. When there were parties, they were doing the Downton-Abbey servants-are-downstairs-and-the-rich-folk-are-fabulous thing, but when they weren't...it was just the staff who had the run of the place. And I imagine that...certain liberties were taken (not like wild staff parties, but I'm sure once in a blue moon some of the maids would be like, "fuck this, let's go sit on the porch for a change rather than sitting down here in the servants' lounge" or something.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:52 AM on November 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Plenty of "Downstairs" history here in America as well as the British Isles.

Julian Fellowes is planning on wrapping up Downton Abbey soon to explore some of this in a prequel spinoff for NBC called The Gilded Age.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:06 AM on November 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

The Gilded Age was big right here in Morris County, NJ, thanks to trains that ran directly to NYC or at least to the ferries that took one there. As I said earlier, my Irish grandparents worked as servants on one of the biggest estates. the Moore estate, but there were countless others, the Dodge Estate, Kahn estate, Frelinghuysen estate etc. Most of these are either gone or have become museums or arboretums. One estate is now Farleigh Dickinson University.

As a kid, my Dad caddied for the rich guys. He and his friends would meet the trains and pick up work from the men who were going straight to the golf club. My dad became an excellent golfer and played into his late 80s.

The Moore Estate was owned by a family that collected carriages and other horse-drawn vehicles and kept them in a huge barn. I got to see this once as a small child visiting my grandpop there. It was quite grand.

The youngest son of the Moore's became an Episcopal Priest, and went to a poor parish in Jersey City, later becoming a Bishop in NYC and DC. He was a fine man involved in many progressive causes throughout his life. In the 90s I was at a poetry festival in Ireland, and the story one of the presenters told about her father sounded familiar. I went up to her after and said "I think my grandparents worked for your grandparents in Morristown." It turned out to be true!
posted by mermayd at 1:42 PM on November 19, 2014

I saw this thread was still active and thought I'd mention I just finished binge-watching the first season of The Duchess of Duke Street, which is really quite a joy to rediscover after seeing it in its first run. I don't want to give spoilers because it really is quite good. I have still not read the FPP essay past the point where I discovered it contained too many spoilers, but based on what I have seen so far, I'm not sure there is really much point in critiquing the show from an LGBT perspective. It really does quite continually deal with feminist issues, although perhaps Louisa Trotter is a strange sort of heroic anti-hero. You will just have to see the show, I can't recommend it highly enough. But I thought I should put it in historical perspective. Consider that this show appeared about 3 years after Roe v. Wade, and played on the BBC during Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, and of consequently was contemporary with the Sex Pistols. This really was quite a moment in history, which would have given much more emotional and political charge to the stories. Also it was produced just after Upstairs, Downstairs, so this show uses some of the same tropes as a shorthand method of establishing historical background.

It might also be worth noting that this is a production by John Hawkesworth, who also produced The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett, which IMHO is one of the best things ever put on TV. He also produced Upstairs, Downstairs, which I was quite a fan of. Someday perhaps I will tell you the story of how impressed I was with an episode featuring a mincemeat pie, so I begged my mom to make an authentic version, and as a result, I have never ever touched a piece of mincemeat pie again. I cannot even bear to look at one.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:09 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

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