Revelations From Downton Abbey
By Michelle LaRowe
Editor in Chief
A modern day peek into the upstairs and downstairs lives of the residents and servants of fictional country estate Downton Abbey, the British-American period drama of the same name, explores the lives, relationships, customs and lifestyles of those who are served and those who served in the post-Edwardian era.
While at first glance there may seem to be little similarity between today’s household staff and that of years past, if you’re both an avid watcher of the show and employed in the private service industry, by season three you’ve come to notice there’s more similarities than originally meets the eye.
Take for instance, the relationship between those who inhibit the upstairs and the downstairs. While there’s clearly a division of who is boss and who isn’t, there is a mutual respect between the family members and the servants that is not to be missed. While there is no mistaking who answers to whom, mutual respect permeates all aspects of the relationship along with an air of genuine care and concern for each other. When a servant or family member of a servant falls ill, it is Lord and Lady Grantham and other members of the Crawley family who take initiative and offer support and services that are well beyond the means of the hired help. When a family member is going through a tough time, it’s the servants who rally around them to offer additional service and support.
There’s also a sense of loyalty that exists between the family and the staff. The family members have a keen sense of loyalty to their staff and it’s one that is readily returned. When Bates encountered some personal troubles, it was Lord Grantham who supported him through them, never wavering from his side.
It’s also hard not to notice the sense of pride the servants have in their work. Whether Alfred is polishing silver or Daisy is plating a meal, everything is done with excellence. And if it’s not, not to worry, Carson or Mrs. Hughes will be sure to let them know and insist they do the task again, as would today’s head of household staff.
While each staff member had a specific role and set of responsibilities, if there was a job to get done, it got done, whether or not it was within the person’s specific set of responsibilities. Take Mr. Barrow, for example, who would double as a valet and under butler depending on the immediate need, much like those who work for busy families who require someone to care for the children and the home.
And let us not forget the “networking” that goes on around the kitchen table downstairs. While today some private service professionals do work in full staffed homes and have that sense of camaraderie, those who don’t will often connect with others in their line of work through professional organizations and local support groups.
Of course today’s household staff members are no longer considered servants and many even take offense to being called domestics. But the reality is, today’s hired help and those of years past both entered into the world of private service, and the characteristics of those who moved up the ladder then and those who move up the ladder now remain the same.
To succeed in private service, respecting your employer is not optional. If you don’t respect your employer, you won’t be able to serve them to the best of your ability.
To succeed in private service, you must take pride in your work. Whether you’re polishing silver or caring for children, you must take great satisfaction in your work and view your work as important. You must also have respect for yourself and the work you’ve chosen to do.
To succeed in private service, you must be willing to do what needs to get done. While a work agreement is essential and serves to outlines specific roles and responsibilities, today’s service professionals have to put aside the “It’s not in my job description” attitude and be flexible enough to take initiative and get things done.
To succeed in private service, you must also have a sense of loyalty towards the family you work for. You must be faithful to the family in duty and in deed. This can mean turning down opportunities to gossip about your employers or to be wooed away by another family when all is well in your working relationship and your work agreement isn’t up.
To succeed in private service, you must connect with others. Working in a private household can be isolating and oftentimes only another person in your position can truly understand the joys and struggles of the job. Relationships with others who understand your work can be a great source of support and strength.
While domestic work has certainly come a long way since the days of Downton Abbey and still has a long way to go, as household employees continue to grow in status, in earnings and in worker protections, it’s imperative that the attitude of service isn’t lost.