There’s a tradition in drama for the ‘lower classes’ to dish the dirt on the tiddly posh. Plays, especially social comedies, often start with a pair of servants discussing what naughty things their superiors are up to.
‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ does something similar. In the 1970s, when I was growing up, this was a drama series everyone watched on ITV and nattered about at work or school the next day. If you, like me, have dodgy knees and a penchant for a nap in the afternoons, you may also remember it. It depicted the lives and loves of the early 20th century aristocratic Bellamy household but also those of their servants ‘downstairs’. The Bellamy family lived in a beautiful Georgian home in Eaton Square, London, went to balls and rang bells to summon tea and cake, damn them. Needless to say, the servants’ lives were different.
You can still get the series on DVD here.
Between 2010 and 2012, the series was resurrected, this time with a new fictional family in Eaton Square but with many actors from the original series. Some episodes were filmed near me in Leamington Spa where Georgian houses are two a penny, except that they cost half a million pounds. If you walked down Clarendon Square during filming, you’d see one house’s number replaced on the elegant white pillar outside it: number 165. I hope someone told the postman.
‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ represented the upstairs and the downstairs worlds alike.
In Jo Baker’s ‘Longbourn’, however, she takes Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and reduces the ‘upstairs’ element, giving the main storyline to the servants. The Bennets aren’t exactly tiddly posh otherwise Mrs Bennet wouldn’t be so desperate to marry all her daughters off to moneyed men by yesterday. But the principle remains: in ‘Longbourn’ you get the servants’ point of view, along with their celebrations and their tragedies, their drudgery and their passions, their camaraderie and their shameful secrets. You still hear of Elizabeth’s volatile relationship with Mr Darcy, Mr Bennet’s dry observations on his wife and life, and Lydia’s elopement with Mr Wickham. But these are only there to counterpoint the lives of the servants, in particular Sarah the housemaid, Mrs Hill the housekeeper and the mysterious new footman, James.
I loved the novel. Baker writes with warmth and wit, bringing her characters to life expertly and recreating the daily routines of Longbourn House with skill. It’s a super love story with twists and turns and moments where you think NO! and others when you think YES! And it really is a treat to get the perspectives of those ‘downstairs’ as they watch the Bennet family fuss and flap about trivialities such as flouncy dresses and whether they have the right gloves while a housemaid breaks her back cleaning out the soot from the fireplace (or emptying the family’s chamber pots and hoping they only did number ones). Baker has serious things to say about social inequalities, just like Austen.
I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of the relationship that develops between Sarah and James, much of it conducted in secret, Sarah taking a break from being downstairs and climbing up a ladder to meet James in the stable loft. You don’t get that from Austen.
‘Longbourn’ was published in 2014 and became a Richard and Judy pick. It’s available here.