To the manor born… or at least to the manor accustomed

Domestic servant ironing
Just saw a PBS series called Manor House. A group of 12 men, women, and children gathered together in one of the grand old English country houses to live as authentically as possible exactly as they would have lived if the year were between 1904-1914. A man, his wife, her sister, two children were the ‘above stairs’ cast. The rest of the people were servants: a tutor, a lady’s maid, butler, housekeeper, footmen, and maids.

It turned out to be more of a reality show than a social experiment. Lots of conflict between the cast, some of it with a suspiciously manufactured feel to it. But after three months of these people playing these roles, it was fascinating to see how these people started to grow into the traditional mindset that they would have had if they actually were the master of the house, the scullery maid, etc.

The people I felt sorriest for at the beginning of the show were the lowest of the low. The scullery maid, for example, worked 18 hour days and had to get up before everyone else so she could start the cooking stove fire and make tea for the next servants, who themselves got up to start the fires for the rest of the house. The first two women who were given the role of scullery maid quit within their first week on the job.

Sargent Lady Agnew of Lochnaw
By the end of the show, on the other hand, the people I felt the sorriest for were the master and mistress of the house. They’d spent three months living as the elite in the Edwardian age, and their whole existence had been a dream of beauty and gilded ease. The man and woman playing these roles were a successful business man and his wife, an emergency room doctor. Not, at a guess, people who’d led sheltered lives. Throughout the show they acted like the stereotype of the stiff-upper-lip English, who do not believe in showing emotion. Yet both of them became choked up and teary eyed upon leaving the house.

It was fascinating how much the servants knew about their masters, and how little the upstairs group knew about the servants. This influenced the servants’ attitude toward the people they served. They knew full well that the people upstairs had no idea how they lived. The master of the house didn’t even know where the kitchens were until the end of the show–and that strongly influenced the servants’ attitudes. They were polite enough, but there was very little respect for the upstairs people.

Considering how thoroughly these people became immersed in their roles, I’d say it’s a safe guess that this was a good representation of how servants felt through the ages toward the people they served.

 

Tangential note: I know Shakespeare used the phrase To the manner born, but more recent authors, such as in the 19th century, used the phrase To the manor born. There are arguments on word geek blogs as to which is correct or whether both versions are correct for different meanings. I like the way the Word Detective explains the two phrases.

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