Historical detail in Downton Abbey
June 17, 2012 3:00 PM   Subscribe

Looking for more information on what life was like in the period depicted in Downton Abbey.

Any resources you could point me to would be much appreciated! I'm looking to get a feel for the setting (particularly in aristocratic households like that of Downton, not so much village life), with very specific detail. For example, I want to know all the little details servants had to know in the aristocratic households - what fork goes on what side, what you can and can't wear in the presence of nobility, how it is appropriate to address different nobles, who you bow to, how deep you bow, etc. Thanks for the help!
posted by ethansh to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
All kinds of answers can be found in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Although it focuses on the Victorian era, most of the information holds as well for the Edwardian era (in which DA is set).
posted by scratch at 3:05 PM on June 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Maybe not as specific as you are looking for but Bill Bryson covers a lot of this kind of thing in his book "At Home: A Short History of Private Life". (Sorry, on my phone and can't figure out how to link!)
posted by lovableiago at 3:12 PM on June 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

You can read a lot of this online: The Domestic Servant Class in Eighteenth-Century England. It's from 1956 and fairly academic.
posted by xingcat at 3:13 PM on June 17, 2012

A good place to start might be the website Edwardian Promenade. I ran a search on "servants" and came up with Domestic Servants in Edwardian England with a bunch of links to books and websites for further reading (here is also The Duties of the Cook and the Parlourmaid & Obtaining Servants). The first link led me to The Up-To-Date Waitress (the entire book online) - "...written by Janet McKenzie-Hill; who was born in Westfield, Massachusetts in 1852 and was a famous author, cooking instructor and lecturer on domestic science... This book was published in 1908 and is an amazing historical record for those interested in the history of day-to-day life in the era of Downton Abbey." It looks extremely detailed!
posted by flex at 3:33 PM on June 17, 2012

May I recommend Manor House/Edwardian Country House? It's a reality show where a bunch of modern people have to live as staff and family in a country house for three months. Lots of discussion of Edwardian life and mores. None of them are Edwardian life experts or anything, so there's lots of explaining and correcting their behavior and a definite focus on how life in that type of milieu was different from your average 21st century life.

I haven't seen it in a while but I remember it as being very watchable. There was sort of a fad for "modern people living like it's historic times" reality shows in the early 2000s. I don't know what that was about.
posted by mskyle at 3:44 PM on June 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was going to recommend Manor House as well - PBS has a website that might provide some useful material.
posted by nanojath at 3:57 PM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Perfect Summer: England, 1911, Just before the Storm and The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age, social histories by Juliet Nicolson.

The former covers domestic life before the war and the latter covers the war through the interment of the Unknown Warrior. The chapter on the interment is just outstanding; hankie alert!
posted by jgirl at 4:25 PM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

This isn't exactly what you're looking for, but it's relevant enough to be worth mentioning: Gwen Raverat's Period Piece is an absolutely charming memoir written by Charles Darwin's granddaughter--it's a reflection on being raised in the English upper classes in the late Victorian/Edwardian period and expressly addresses some of the ways that English society and domestic life changed dramatically over that period.
posted by yoink at 4:46 PM on June 17, 2012

Funny, I recently put a hold on my public library's copy of Below Stairs--it's Margaret Powell's memoir of her life as a servant and was an inspiration for both Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. I can't personally attest to its quality as there are a lot of other patrons in line ahead of me (curses!), but according to most of the reviews on the Goodreads page it's interesting and well written, and a few reviews state that the author goes into quite a bit of detail about exactly how her duties needed to be done and how servants were supposed to interact with the "upstairs people."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:54 PM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

You may benefit from Emily Post's Etiquette, dealing as it does with the sort of social niceties that would likely have been considered desirable in an aristocratic house.
posted by mr. digits at 5:08 PM on June 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Emily Post's Etiquette is a fascinating book, but it was published in 1922 in the US, and reflects both the changes wrought by the First World War and the differences between US and (then) Great Britain. (Though IIRC there is a whole lot of stuff about how to address different English aristocrats and what to tip the butler if you're staying at an English country house, but definitely from the perspective of visitors from the US.)
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:58 PM on June 17, 2012

Manor House seemed much more realistic to me than does Downton Abbey.
posted by gjc at 6:54 PM on June 17, 2012

This is hilarious. I just got finished searching Amazon on this very subject. Here's what turned up:

The World of Downton Abbey

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey"

The Real Life Downton Abbey: How Life Was Really Lived in Stately Homes a Century Ago

I haven't read any of these, so I can't speak to the contents or quality. They all come at it from very different perspectives, though. If you do get and read something please report back!
posted by alms at 8:20 PM on June 17, 2012

(When I say "just got finished searching" I mean about 30 seconds prior to finding your question on AskMe.)
posted by alms at 8:24 PM on June 17, 2012

Awesome! Thanks everyone for the responses, looks like I've got some reading to do! alms, I'll be sure to report back if anything looks good!
posted by ethansh at 8:51 PM on June 17, 2012

OK, I just finished reading Below Stairs and it was thoroughly delightful; the author (who started out as a kitchen maid and eventually became a cook) is articulate, engaging and funny--and she doesn't sugarcoat anything. There is a ton of detail, of the exact sort you are looking for, and it is set in the same time period as Downton Abbey.

It was a very quick read and I enjoyed it so much I wished it were longer.

Highly recommended!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:37 AM on August 19, 2012

Oops, I just realized I said it was set in the same time period as Downton Abbey, but it is actually set about a decade later, in the early 1920s.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:44 AM on August 19, 2012

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