Jayne Dawson: Servant life wasn’t cosy, it was nasty, brutish and short

The fake world of Downton could end up rewriting history.
The fake world of Downton could end up rewriting history.
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Preposterous is probably the right word. Yes, I think so. We’ll go with that.

I mean, I’m not always a fan of reality, I enjoy living in a fantasy bubble as much as the next person. But there does come a point...

The danger is that if the autumn television staple that is Downton Abbey goes on for many more years, people will start to believe it.

I know! What a daft idea. How could anyone believe that silly soap opera has anything to do with life as it was.

But then again, if you repeat a lie long enough...

So the latest and fifth series of the unstoppable juggernaut that Downton has become is set in 1924, some 12 years later than the year in which the first was supposedly set.

Some things are still the same, including all the actors’ faces which haven’t aged a day.

And Cora is still having her usual trouble. I don’t know whether she hurt her neck back in series one, or sat on something painful, but either way her head has been at a peculiar angle ever since

And Dame Maggie is still enjoying being paid good money to look haughty and issue a few one-liners. She must kiss that script with joy in the two minutes it takes her to learn it.

The opening episode dealt with the major problems of the day back in the Britain of the early 1920s: the scullery maid’s self -esteem issues; the butler’s concern that his increasing profile in the village was making poor Lord Grantham feel inferior; the pigman’s plan to make sure Lady Edith gets to spend time with her secret daughter.

Hang on though…

The trouble is, if this baloney is aired for long enough, a generation will grow up believing the message that the relationship between master and servant was an equal one.

Because Downton creates a world where hierarchy didn’t exist. The two groups occupy different parts of the house, the aristocrats wear the fancy clothes but, essentially, everybody respects everybody else.

And it is in the servants’ quarters that the brains reside. Not an episode passes without the toffs having to be propped up and dusted down by their compassionate carers.

But lets take a deep, brave breath and consider how it really was in 1924, six years after the mass slaughter of the First World War and two years before working class people embarked on the general strike in protest at wage cuts and the unfairness of their miserable lives, despite all that sacrifice.

By then it was difficult for the grand homes to keep servants because no one wanted the job.

Servants were always an invisible army. Their needs were not ignored - they were not even considered.

Servants shared beds in airless, dank spaces at the very top or the very bottom of the house; they did their work unseen, rising before dawn to carry out tasks of hard physical labour.

They had no rights: they were often not allowed to marry, their pay was poor and their hours punishing.

Female servants were fair game for predatory masters but if they became pregnant were of course thrown out. A servant could never answer back, never defend themselves, never question their employer.

Some of you will have had grandparents who were in service for a time, in their youth, before the system collapsed, or know family stories that have been passed down. In my experience, these stories are never good.

So it’s okay to scoff at the enjoyable romp of Downton Abbey - as long as we keep reminding ourselves, and our children, that the reality of servant life was indeed nasty, brutish and short.

Sarah Champion MP

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