Downtown Abbey and its highly problematic depiction of the experience of servants at the end of the era of widespread bonded servitude has tended to color the opinions of many viewers about the nature of such lives. More important is the reminder that it can, and should, provide us with that servitude was–and is–a spectrum as expansive as the Atlantic Ocean, from slavery at the clearest end to indentured apprenticeship and liveried valets at the murky other side. Few topics are more deserving of the considered attention of historians and, yet, few subjects have such a dearth of primary sources to aid us, leaving theory and supposition as poor substitutes for thoughtful, because informed, analysis.
That is a heavy appetizer for such a light main course, one provided by Laura Walpole Keppel, a younger, Georgian, nonfiction version of Maggie Smith’s splendid Dowager Countess of Grantham. On this date in 1774, a year when George III was on the throne of Great Britain and George Washington attended more fox hunts than church services, Laura lamented, in a letter to her aunt, the lives of those below her stairs because of the problems they caused her above them. The letter excerpt is of interest for many reasons, not least because it grants us the privilege of an unfiltered perspective on the outward lives of servants in Georgian England — and has nothing to do with Julian Fellowes.
What plagues servants are! My upper ones all quarrel’d last week, such a piece of work, I thought I must have turn’d ’em all away, I did not sleep for two nights, for they discovered things of one another, that I am sure they are very sorry for, & I believe heartily repent having come to me in their passion. At present tis blown over but if ever they quarrel again, my Ld has told ’em they shall ev’ry one be discharged in one day. ’tis intollerable that ones life is to be made miserable by such wretches. Indeed Charlotte’s maid (who was out of the quarrel) said truth, that they lived too well, & had nothing to find fault with, & therefore quarrel’d with one another. & that is the true state of the case. for my servants really live like kings & queens & are never scolded.