Nobody said it was easy (copperbadge) wrote,
Nobody said it was easy


Up and Down Stairs, by Jeremy Musson, is an odd book. On the one hand it's super-informative and clearly thoroughly researched. On the other, oh god, it is so hard to finish. I've been working on it for months, off and on, and it's only 250 pages.

In medieval and Tudor times, establishments were deeply ingrained with ideals of servants being on display and public hospitality, but in the seventeenth century an increasing desire for privacy led to a separation of lower servants from the public spaces occupied by the landowner’s family. -- p. 4

It's essentially a history of service in England, specifically on large country estates between the medieval and modern age. It draws on a lot of sources -- public documents, letters, literature, diaries and memoirs, plus live anecdotes in the later chapters. It's a bit dense, however, and one of the keys of good nonfiction is knowing when enough is enough. There's an art to figuring out when not to include something even if it's super-interesting, if it's not relevant. Especially since I think the text could have been organizationally streamlined if it had been trimmed a little.

The one thing I found most fascinating about the book, which is a bit more compelling in early chapters, is the study of how medieval house-servant structure was formed. Apparently from the middle ages up through the rise of the Tudors, house servants were actually usually drawn from the upper classes, which helped train young noblemen in etiquette and teach them how to command their own servants.

Even the Dukes sonne [was] preferred Page to the Prince, the Earles seconde son attendant upon the Duke, the Knight’s seconde sonne the Earles servant, the Esquires son to weare the Knyghtes lyverie, and the Gentleman’s sonnes the Esquire’s Serving Man. Yea, I know at this day, gentlemen[‘s] younger brothers that weares their elder brothers Blew coate and Badge, attending him with as revered regard and duetifull obedience, as if he were their Prince or Soveraigne. -- quoting the anonymous writer "IM", p. 37

I'm interested in the concept of the "serving man", which is not really news to most people, so I did enjoy bits of the book. There are a lot of fun anecdotes:

Fynes Moryson, writing in 1617, recorded a proverb that England was the hell of horses, the purgatory of servants and the paradise of women, ‘because they ride Horses without measure, and use their Servants imperiously, and their Women obsequiously'. -- p. 38

[Gordon Grimmett's] colleague Rosina Harrison remembered him as ‘an excellent footman. He was like an actor; he’d be playing the fool in the wings but from the moment he went on stage he was straight into his part. It was the theatre of service which appealed to him, the dressing up in livery with almost period movement and big gestures that fitted the Louis Quinze dining-room at Cliveden.' -p. 172

Goodwood’s house steward, Robert Smith, wrote on 19 May 1858 to Archibald Hair, secretary to the 5th Duke of Richmond... - p. 142

ARCHIBALD HAIR. When I go on the lam, that's going to be my alias.

There was an interesting attempt in the book to study out how the structure of the English country house impacted its architecture. There is, absolutely, a lot of detail at various points concerning how the houses were laid out, but it got a bit tedious and it was also hard to track because of the sheer number of sources quoted and examples given. And at the same time, it was rather frustratingly vague on detail:

This focus on regulation of servants’ lives was also expressed in architecture, with some landowners continually updating their service quaters. The servants’ hall was central to the working areas and staff accommodation at the back of the house, all of which continued throughout the century to be subject to adjustments of architectural thinking. - p. 145

Final Verdict: If you're really, really into English country house servants, or you're writing a detailed Downton Abbey fanfic, this is the book for you. Casual readers may, like me, start to skim large chunks of text looking for the funny bits.
Tags: book reviews
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