Lucy Lethbridge's Servants - A Downstairs View of Twentieth Century Britain, is a non-fiction book detailing the lives and attitudes of and towards domestic servants in the late nineteenth century through the late twentieth century. Some references have been made to earlier periods, but as a whole this book begins with the late Victorian and Edwardian ages. It's quite obvious that the author has limited source material, but as she explains, these servants either had no time to themselves to actually write a diary or letters, and even if they did nobody took the pains to save them. If one is a huge fan of the popular teleseries Downtown Abbey, this book will serve as an able guide to some of the characters that populate the series.
There are some amusing, as much as they are appalling, anecdotes of how helpless the upper classes were without servants. Take for instance, the young lord who was considered one of the most intelligent and literary greats of his generation, who was unable to open a window just because he was used to a servant who would always do it for him. So when he finds himself without a servant, one day, he simply breaks it open for fresh air.
There are also horror stories of how the servants were treated as sub-human, made to live in dark, damp rooms and lacked even bare necessities like a meal three times a day.
Lethbridge tells readers the story of the thousands of German and Austrian refugees who came over in the 1930s to work as servants, some of them being refined women who had lived protected lives. Often ensconced in remote rural locations, they faced anti-Hitler hostility from colleagues lower down the rungs and veiled anti-semitism from their employers.
The book does a great job in describing the changing patterns of domestic service across the 20th century, especially on how the two wars changed things.
If the source material was a little broader, with the voices of more people being included, this book would have been a better read. But that said, Servants brings to the fore the hard lives of a section that was marginalised for decades, and is a great book for lovers of history, 20th century news and gossip.