You couldn't portray the Downton Abbey servants' lives accurately without turning the Crawley's into monsters and villains
To control history by rewriting the past subtly influences present attitudes too: every dictator knows that. Downton rewrites class division, rendering it anodyne, civilised and quaintly cosy. Those upstairs do nothing unspeakably horrible to their servants, while those downstairs are remarkably content with their lot. The brutality of servants’ lives is bleached out, the brutishness of upper-class attitudes, manners and behaviour to their servants ironed away. There are token glimpses of resentments between the classes, but the main characters are nice, in a nice world. The truth would be impossible without turning the Earl of Grantham and his family, the Crawleys, into villains, with the below-stairs denizens their wretched victims – a very different story, and not one Julian Fellowes would ever write.
Much attention is paid to detail. Place settings are measured to perfection with a ruler, the footmen’s buttons absolutely correct, yet everything important is absolutely wrong. Start with the labour: what we see is pleasant work by well-manicured maids in fetching uniforms, healthy and wholesome, doing a little feather-dusting of the chandeliers, some silver polishing, some eavesdropping while serving at table and some pleasant cooking with Mrs Patmore. There is even time for scullery maid Daisy to sit at the kitchen table improving herself with home education. In Downton the hierarchical bullying of servants by one another is replaced by the housekeeper and butler’s benevolent paternalism: what a nice place to work.
What we never see is bedraggled drudges rising in freezing shared attics at 5.30am; slopping out chamber pots, heaving coal, black-leading grates, hauling cans of hot water with hands already made raw by chilblains and caustic soda. We never dwell on the hardship of scrubbing floors, or scrubbing clothes, or scouring grease; in pre-detergent days, they were up to their elbows all day long. And yet they had virtually no water or time for washing themselves. Servants were often sooty and dirty. They smelled strongly of sweat, with few clean clothes, says Dr Lucy Delap, author of Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain. She says they used patchouli oil to cover the sweat, the identifying aromas of hard service. In Mrs Woolf and the Servants, Alison Light records Virginia Woolf observing “Mabel sweats when she is making jam”. Even the somewhat more enlightened and sometimes embarrassed Bloomsbury set wrote of their “inferiors”, Woolf talking of “that poor gaping imbecile, my charwoman”.
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