At what point in the history of domestic service, I wonder, did lords and ladies start saying Thank you to their staff, instead of just kicking them into the fireplace? When did it begin, this treacherous acquisition of personhood by the dishwashing classes? Was there perhaps a single, pivotal moment, deep in some ancestral pile, when a purple-faced baronet looked upon his vassal and experienced—wildly, disconcertingly—the first fizzings of human-to-human recognition? Blame Saint Francis of Assisi. Blame Charles Dickens. By the early 20th century, at any rate, the whole master-servant thing was plainly in ruins. Individuals were everywhere. The housekeeper had opinions; the chauffeur had a private life; and the gentleman found himself obliged to take an interest, however slight, in the affairs of his gentleman’s gentleman. “And what will you do with your weekend off, Bassett?”
I know all this—lest you doubt my expertise—because I’ve been watching Downton Abbey, the ludicrously popular aristo-soap currently airing on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic. The motto of the show might be: “Footmen have feelings, too.” We are now entering Season Three, but really, everything you need to know about Downton happened in the first five minutes of Season One. Fans will recall the scene: Morning is breaking in 1912 England. Lawns twinkle under a fat old Edwardian sun. Upstairs, the blue bloods stir lazily in their four-posters; downstairs, uniformed menials scuttle in a fever of industry through the rooms of the great house, laying fires, opening curtains, bantering and reproving. They are building the set, essentially, for the pageant of privilege that is about to take place. A white and languorous arm extends; a bell is rung; down in the kitchen, an answering tinkle. “And they’re off,” says Thomas the footman, sneering into his porridge. Then the papers arrive: the Titanic has sunk.