Slaves of slime, etiquette and Victorian hypocrisy


An essay reveals the cruelest and most sinister side of British servitude, the one that series like ‘Downton Abbey’ hide

They wore fine manners and immaculate and spotless uniforms, but they worked from dawn to dusk and without rights. Ready to always serve their masters and contribute to the good name of the houses that employed them, under the impeccable appearance and unwavering loyalty of the butlers, housekeepers, servants, maids, cooks, drivers and grooms of the time. Victorian there were slaves. Victims of sexual and labor abuse and child exploitation. Frank Victor Dawes confirmed this in ‘Never Before the Servants’, a classic that regains the Peripheral Seal and reveals the harsh realities of domestic work based on the testimonies of its protagonists.

Harriet Brown began serving at the age of 10. In 1879, she wrote to her mother that she got up at 4:30 in the morning and went to bed at midnight “so tired I have no choice but to burst into tears.” His daughter Ellen, also ten years old, would be the eighth servant in another noble house. Every night she fell asleep crying after brushing hardwood floors with liquid soap and silica dust.

It’s just one of the stories Dawes collects in an essay advertised as “the book that tells what Downton Abbey is silent.” The author delved into the dark side of that slavery close to vassalship that has been addressed in recent films and series such as ‘Libertad’ (Clara Roquet, 2021) or ‘La assistant’ (Molly Smith Metzler, 2021), as well as ‘Los innocent saints’ (Mario Camus, 1984) or ‘The ceremony’ (Claude Chabrol, 1995).

On the other side are those who idealize the intricate Victorian world. Series like ‘Downton Abbey’ or the legendary ‘Up and Down’ “established in our imagination the idea of ​​a calm and ordered universe based on efficiency, unquestioning devotion and the integrity of the gentlemen”. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Dawes, the son of a maid who started serving at age 13. When ‘Upstairs and Downstairs’ was all the rage on British television, Dawes marveled at the plummeting number of white-collar workers in the UK, from nearly one and a half million until World War I to fewer than 100,000. In 1972 he published an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph asking those who had worked as servants to tell him about their experiences. He received more than 700 letters that form the basis of the demystifying essay portraying a century of domestic work. It was published in the UK half a century ago, but it was not translated into Spanish.

Housemaids, butlers, governesses, cooks, footmen and also some employers recount tragic, comical, tender, ridiculous and sometimes cruel memories that “confirm the idea that they have always been regarded as workers and even second-class people”. Many of these house slaves were forced to serve out of necessity. The guarantee of shelter and food was a labour-intensive and vital solution for the needy. But soon resentment overcame them for the double standards and hypocrisy that would characterize their lives. While the masters upstairs ate the succulent food that had been cooked downstairs, they could only eat the leftovers. The gentlemen enjoyed opulent rooms, across from the austere and uncomfortable attics of the servants.

Leonine standards regarding the work uniform or street clothes forced the highly codified lives of some servants who had to remain mute and invisible when serving in the noble dining rooms. They endured endless days of constant ringing of the bell. With no leisure opportunities, no social or family life, many girls were sex toys for masters with a clear conscience. “Servants, obey those who are your masters in the world with fear and trembling, and do the will of God from the heart,” they read in the Bible (Ephesians VI:5-8).

In ‘My Secret Life’, the memoirs of an anonymous Victorian gentleman, it is read that the humblest of women and servants ‘committed fornication in secret and took pride in having a gentleman who covered them. That was the opinion of men about my lifestyle and my age. Given the frequent pregnancies of white-collar workers, “the blame fell entirely on her, not the relative who got her pregnant,” Dawes says. They could be fired on a whim and without references, with prostitution, begging or asylum as the only way out.

Source: La Verdad


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