Fictional Downton Abbey is supposed to be one of the grandest houses in England, inhabited by the distinguished Crawley family; but on this smash television hit, it’s the servants who steal the show. From Mr. Carson, the butler with the bushy eyebrows that practically dare you to defy him, to the earthy Mrs. Patmore, who rules over the kitchen with a stern hand, the staff at Downton have rich, tumultuous lives of their own, even if they are intensely circumscribed by protocol. They are, after all, servants.

In her fine new social history, Lucy Lethbridge examines the peculiar lot of these iconic figures of British culture. “The idea of the perfect servant – silent, obsequious, loyal – is a central component of the many myths of England’s recent past,” she writes. “Servants underpin the ideal, never quite attainable, of a perfectly ordered life.” Powerful in their own way – estates like Downton could not function without their retinue of retainers – the servant classes and those they served were forever locked into a kind of helpless codependency.

As Lethbridge shows, servants never worked for just the very rich. Up and down the British social ladder, servants found employment, even in homes of modest means. In 1911, for example, 800,000 families employed servants, but only a small portion employed more than three. On the grandest of estates, domestic service reached a ridiculous level of specialization. “Lamp men” lit and cared for oil lamps and candles, which left sooty traces if not properly maintained. In some houses, there was a gong man, whose sole function was to walk the corridors and bang a gong, thrice daily, at meal times. Big estates required constant maintenance, thus the need for fencers, hedgers, pig boys and spider brushers. At Longleat, seat of the Marquess of Bath, you would even find a “tiger,” a “small boy dressed in miniature livery employed to sit on a box of the carriage with his arms folded across his chest like a decorative ornament.”

We also meet some of the more familiar personalities of the service trade – butlers, valets, footmen, scullery-girls. The butler, who stood “at the apex of the servants’ pyramid,” had a distinctive, authoritative, almost lordly manner. The valet also occupied a special, almost tragic place. Essential help for any well-to-do single man, the valet looked quite distinguished; he was almost – but never could be – a gentleman. Writes Lethbridge, he “was a casualty of the particular loneliness of the upper-servant: stranded somewhere between the camaraderie of the servants’ hall and that of the drawing room.”

Yet domestic service, by 1900, was overwhelmingly women’s work. Lethbridge is particularly good on the pressures facing striving, middle-class women. A well-maintained home was the most prominent sign of respectability – it was considered a moral beacon in a chaotic world. The housewife was also encouraged to entertain and cultivate her “inner life.” But there was a catch: To do this, she had to exploit the labor of another woman. For writers and intellectual figures such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, a room of one’s own must come with a servant.

Lethbridge writes with sympathy about her subjects. Employers could be benevolent and onerous at the same time. One housemaid recalled that the women she worked for weighed the contents of her vacuum cleaner – “a cup and a half of dirt was considered a job well done.” Yet service was a doomed enterprise in the 20th century. Both World Wars exposed women to alternative forms of employment. After the Second World War, crushing levels of taxation forced many grand houses to shut down. Some duties Lethbridge describes are downright silly – shoelaces and newspapers being ironed – yet there is a poignancy to her account.

Some households held on, in defiance of time. In 1939, a social researcher went undercover as a scullery-maid for a bedridden woman in a huge London house. One evening’s dinner was a simple digestive biscuit and a malted milk drink, the preparation and serving of which involved the entire eight-person staff. “It was like watching a hundred-ton crane picking up a safety-pin,” the researcher observed. Ridiculous and sad, sure; but Lethbridge, evenhanded to the end, stresses the inherent dignity of domestic service.

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