I’ve been watching this timeless masterpiece from the BBC called Upstairs/Downstairs. It is the tale of class differentiating the rights and responsibilities of uppers vs. lowers. You’d think I would have watched this first but instead I’ve watched several other classics discussing the exact same problem – “The Duchess of Duke Street,” “The Grand,” and most recently on PBS, “Downton Abbey,” first. Consequently I found the latter versions more interesting than their former. Nonetheless, they all bear watching for the simple fact that we are reminded, very carefully, what life was like for our ancestors.
Women of course had the largest burden to bear whether they were upstairs or downstairs. The one similarity I’ve noticed in all versions of class disputes is that the men, no matter what their status were well-respected and listened to. Women were chattel, inconsequential, burdens, but also a necessity for the running of households. Men almost always had very distinguished titles and uniforms downstairs. They were butlers, chauffeurs, servers and footmen. The outdoor manservants got to see things as they drove their charges around town. The butlers and manservants would often travel with the family where ever they went. Butlers kept on top of financial matters, made sure things were in order.
Women on the other hand were mostly cooking, cleaning and ladies maids. The upstairs ladies maids might travel with their mistresses too but they were seen as far inferior in intelligence to the woman upstairs. Their lady whom they waited on were superior but daft, vulnerable creatures who needed tending to because they were so fragile. The women in charge downstairs very rarely left the bottom floor and their charges almost never did, except cleaning. Whenever either sex was upstairs they were invisible, unless spoken to.
The topics that have come up on these period pieces have been shocking to say the least. It has been issues that still confront us today but with more dignity. A servant is raped by a wealthy neighbor and no matter how much her master believes her and wishes to help her legally, he can’t keep her in his home. The idea of a bastard child having been born under his roof would be scandalous. She is sent out on the streets even though it is virtually impossible for a pregnant woman to get a job. Another servant is gang raped, by wealthy entitled pricks, in an upstairs hotel suite (in The Grand [Hotel] series) and in the process kills one of her perpetrators. She is hung for this. It continues to go on and on like this, one story after another. The men on the other hand, the male servants, rarely bear the burden of any of their faults. Usually they are only let go for stealing and that is about it. If they get a girl pregnant – who’s to know or prove it? Of course there was the controversy about hiring a male servant because he had a handicap – he limped. God forbid!
The most disappointing part of watching these shows is the knowledge that the women downstairs very rarely go outside of the house. They all work six to seven days a week and often if the upstairs crew have need of their services, the help must relinquish a day off, with no make-ups. This is the reason we have labor laws now. The servants who work for their masters can expect to live in this home forever, as long as their landlord stays afloat financially and they obey. There is obviously no devotion if the man should loosen his pockets and be frivolous to ruin the family name. Can you imagine working somewhere forever, because you have no other choice? Or being solely dependent on one family to take care of you for your entire life?
My most favorite character of all from these classics, is Louisa from “The Duchess of Duke Street.” This was about a woman who rose to the top, by sleeping her way up but having the balls to maintain her dignity and keep the respect of all. Louisa was seen in her very first job, on the top floor, coincidently at the same time that the King happened to stop by. He liked her spunky attitude and made an offer to sleep with her through her master. This included a marriage (for appearances) and a beautiful house in town where she would be the one in charge. Over time she sells this house and opens a hotel. Oddly, while she goes out of her way to think like a richie, dress like one and behave like one, she preserves her Cockney accent to the end. A lesson in humility – never forget where you came from.
Louisa was based on a real woman from this time period, so we know that what she did, all the capers she got herself into, for the sake of saving her hotel, or someone’s backside, really did happen. This is also what fascinated me about her personality. A woman who is able to persevere, despite all obstacles pushed against her, in a time when women were seen as morons and had no rights, is overwhelming to take in.
Louisa is the kind of woman I see as a survivor. Yet even though the rest of the women are not quite so successful, we can’t blame them for being victims of that time. It is not easy, as a woman, now or then to battle the odds against us. I think now, we certainly have many more advantages than we did then and I think most of us take this for granted. This is not dissimilar to the women upstairs who thought of themselves and rarely took compassion on their sisters who were not so fortunate. It did occur to them that they were more fortunate yet the attitude you see is one like that of the slave holders, detached and even spiteful. It is as if it is the poor servants fault that they are in the financial predicament they are in. We are born in life with the luck of poverty or wealth and if they couldn’t figure out how to raise themselves up, then they really deserved no respect. The respect they did receive as servants, might be for a job well done.
The one item that is never really made clear in most period pieces is this: “Where the hell does all the money come from in these wealthy and noble families?” You see them prancing about their estates, going away on business, doing the accounting in the library but there is never a clear definition as to how they came upon their wealth in the first place. With gentleman, I believe they were actually paid a salary – but by who, I don’t know. Having a job was seen as lower class or working class. You hear of wealthy people in these series investing their money and with the two shows that took place in hotels, it was quite obvious they worked for their money and it was a respectable way to earn a living and not be considered working class. Still I wonder about the others.
I recommend watching period pieces if you are a woman because it is important to remember where and who we came from. If you are not from wealth, you can see what you may have amounted to. When a woman was unable to get a respectable servants job, teach, or be a governess, her position would be that of a prostitute. If you are a man, I think these period pieces can teach you where you came from and how to behave like a gentleman. I don’t believe we should ever go back to the way things were before, the inequality between sexes but I do believe men can still behave like gentleman, dress properly, and act morally or decently. It doesn’t hurt for men to watch these type of movies to learn how women’s rights began either.
Our society has changed dramatically over time and we have reached an era where there is equality. More so than has ever occurred in our history. We have a lot to be grateful for and we owe our homage to our ancestors.