Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney

A simple but thorough glimpse into the lives of British house servants in the early 1900s.

In the wake of Downton Abbey‘s wild success, Alison Maloney’s Life Below Stairs offers an in-depth look at the lives of the serving class in the era of King Edward VII (1901-1910) and the Great War. She examines all aspects of servants’ place in society and relationships to their masters and one another, including social backgrounds, the responsibilities of each servant in households large and small–from the lowly house or hall boy and the maid-of-all-work to the butler and housekeeper–and their working conditions. She also provides details on fine dining, complete with table service instructions and menus that boggle the mind. Finally, she describes servants’ opportunities for retirement or marriage out of service, giving the modern reader an idea of exactly how limited their lives could be. Many poor children and teens would feel lucky to get a position in a “good house,” and not feel dishonored by such a post–in contrast, a contemporary source relates, “service [was] considered rather degrading in America.”

Although comprehensive in its survey of staff’s lives, options, and conditions, Life Below Stairs is a surprisingly easy read. Short chapters and accompanying tables, contemporary newspaper clippings and illustrations make this an accessible and charming way to study the lives of Edwardian servants. As a companion to Downton Abbey or simply a dip into another time, Maloney’s study satisfies.


This review originally ran in the January 4, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 eyes lowered.

2 Responses

  1. One of the things that I really like on the DVD of Gosford Park (one of my favorite movies, set a bit later than Downton Abbey) is a commentary track by Julian Fellowes about how carefully they researched the lives of the servants and how those houses ran (though a lot of it came from his own experiences as well).

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