In October I covered Lucy Lethbridge’s talk on her book Servants for the Ilkley Lit Festival over on the Pickled Egg blog. I really enjoyed the talk, and as a fan of social history books I was very pleased when I found a copy of the book in the library.
Reading non-fic always seems to take me eight times as long as fiction and this book was no exception, I feel like I’ve been reading it for weeks, but the details within were so varied and fascinating I didn’t resent the time taken.
The book details life as a servant in a variety of settings from the late-Victorian/Edwardian period to after the Second World War for the most part-there are a few chapters about the decline of service in the last half of the twentieth century but this is in no way the focus of the book. Through the work on servants a social history of Britain as a state is revealed, and the attitudes to class and how you respond to ‘your betters’ was particularly relevent to me, especially considering the amount of column inches on equality and privilege being written at the moment. The idea it was socially ingrained to believe someone better than you, to the point where you would serve their every whim no matter how ridiculous seems so alien now but this is how thousands of people lived and worked for years and years and years.
The book, like the talk, for me was just one massive reading list. Rather vignette in nature it made me want to research more, rather than feel an expert on the subject. Sometimes I felt like it could have been a series of books that concentrated on different parts of the century, rather than an overview, but as an overview it is very good. I especially loved the chapter on the Universal Aunts, an employment agency in the 1920s concentrating on women with varying skills that could be employed for a whole manor of tasks-from introducing New Money employers into society to teaching. One of the Aunts, Pansy Trubshawe, was written up by the agency’s founder Gertie Maclean as ‘understanding cricket and foreign stamps but not much else’ and if that isn’t the beginning of a wonderful novel I don’t know what is!