Review: The Real Life Women of Downton Abbey and Life Below Stairs

Instinct invites me to be suspicious of any book with ‘real’ in the title, let alone one that also manages to fit ‘really’ into its sub-title. Such is the case with Pamela Horn’s The Real Life Women of Downton Abbey: How wives & daughters really lived in country house society over a century ago, recently published in hardback by Amberley Press. If one ‘real’ is unfortunate, two seems careless.

There are plenty of other reasons to be suspicious of this book, not least the fact that it is actually a re-printing of a much earlier text, first published in 1991 with the title Ladies of the Manor. Re-printing a book is no crime in itself – especially if it is in demand – though there is something a little cynical about the way this book has been re-branded to cater for a new audience (although, it must be noted, it is by no means alone). If the book had been re-written, or at least edited, to appeal to Downton Abbey fans, it would be a different proposition. Instead, the book has simply be re-titled and printed in a smart hard-back edition. All very handsomely produced, though at £20 many readers might prefer to scour second-hand book stores for old copies of Ladies of the Manor.

This is not, then, a new book by any means, nor is it in any way connected with the TV show Downton Abbey. This is a pity, for fans and non-fans alike. It would have been nice to have seen the writer use her knowledge to address the wave of current nostalgia for all things Edwardian, of which this re-publication forms part. Unfortunately, Pamela Horn has nothing to say about contemporary obsession with Edwardian high society (discussed in passing here). The Real Life Women of Downton Abbey presents us, instead, with a solid slice of social history, in which the author largely ignores subsequent appropriations of this era and culture. What we get instead is a panoply of contemporary sources about the life of women in English country, neatly woven together under familiar (one could go so far as to say ‘tired’) themes, including the ‘season’, motherhood, philanthropy, and political involvement.

The scope of the book is, as the new title suggests, rather wide. ‘Over a century ago’ refers to a period of about seventy years, roughly 1850-1920. Again, this would not be a problem in itself, were it not for the fact that attention is not always drawn to nuances in time and place. Sources from the 1850s often rub up against sources from the 1900s, as if the two could be treated as much the same period, and as if every location were subject to the same laws (the exception being an interesting chapter on the First World War, which closes the study). In light of the thematic approach, readers are required to keep an especially close eye on chronology.

Here the book’s qualities rather work against it. The book is rich in details, drawing on a wide range of diaries, letters and images (of which it provides a particularly generous selection). A lot of work has clearly gone into amassing and assembling all of this. The end result, however, is not always easy to read. The unobtrusive presence of Pamela Horn as a historian, and her reluctance to focus on any one example for more than a page or so, makes the whole thing seem like a rather wearying procession of disparate voices: some of whom we return to, others who are never seen again. Certain lives and stories shine out at times, but many more are lost in the mix. Quotations follow quotations at a dizzying rate, often without comment from the author (although she is, of course, very present as an editor). In this sense, it works well as a reference book; more of a starting point than a developed argument.

Life Below Stairs follows The Real Life Women of Downton Abbey in providing a well-organised and carefully detailed case study of British society, focussing in this case on the experience of domestic service in Britain in the first four decades of the twentieth century. More attention is given, here, to chronology: the differences between pre- and post-war servant life are key to the study, which largely focuses on the inter-war era. Wider themes are, however, drawn out in the second half of the book, including an interesting chapter on domestic servants and emigration. Edwardian scholars may find, however, that the first decade of the century is rather rushed over, with the period 1900-1920 allotted less than forty pages.

As with The Real Life Women of Downton Abbey, the depth and range of the research contained in Life Below Stairs, cannot be called into question. Both books are well referenced, and a tribute to the author’s wide knowledge and, on occasion, instinct for the apposite quotation. The bibliography in Life Below Stairs is strong. The Real Life Women of Downton Abbey however, has no bibliography at all, and shares with Life Below Stairs the lack of an index, which makes it hard for the reader to relocate interesting passages and/or names. For this reason, and the others detailed above, the relevance of these books to the specialist in Edwardian culture remains unclear, although there are certainly worse starting points for those seeking to gain a confident overview of life above and below stairs in British country houses c.1850-1939.

Samuel Shaw, November 2012.

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