Upstairs/Downstairs Characters in a Modern Cozy British Mystery Setting—Is the Class Distincti
As an American, writing in the upscale, almost royal, cozy British mystery world of my storylines, one of the challenges for me doing character development is how to incorporate and treat characters that do not live, entertain, or perform dastardly deeds on the upper floors of Cherrywood Hall. These characters are the housekeepers, butlers, chef, chauffer and groomsmen that keep my almost royal, privileged life characters in well form. These ‘seen’ but ‘unseen’ characters perform a multitude of roles in my storylines—not just the work for their prescribed role, but also providing history, local knowledge, and unique perspectives to the main characters to give them insights they might not have otherwise. When in doubt, ask Bridges, Mrs. Smythe, Chef Karl, or Bates…
Alison Maloney’s book, Life Below Stairs, True Lives of Edwardian Servants, gives an excellent perspective of what it was like to serve in these ‘downstairs’ positions in the early 20th century. She details the various roles, and their rules and responsibilities. There was a definite servitude class structure, and no deviations tolerated. the work hours were long, and the pay minimal. Many roles were served by children, put into servitude by their poor families, or taken from orphanages and put to work. Their quarters were humble at best, with few amenities. There were separate halls and staircases used by the servants—their roles required them to be ‘unseen’. Time off was usually one afternoon a week. The first world war gave a welcomed change to the people of this world, offering new opportunities in the working world that had not been available before.
I’ve been surprised in bad and good ways as to how the ‘downstairs’ characters were treated by writers I love, perhaps because of the time period and how things were done back then. Agatha Christie uses many young women in service in her Miss Marple stories. These poor girls are usually described as inferior in intelligence and clumsy, making their training by Miss Marple a never ending challenge. Their turnover is frequent, and often times they end up as victims, with Miss Marple finding their deviant killers.
In Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness series, Lady Georgiana, often challenged by lack of funds, worked as a maid herself—undercover of course, until she was off solving mysteries for her cousin, Queen Mary. Her maid Queenie is often ruining dresses, forgetting shoes, and making poor Georgie quite frustrated. There are humorous storylines and scenes of course, but I find it sad that we’re led to believe these poor characters are so helpless that they are only being ‘saved’ by the kind heartedness of their frustrated mistresses.
One of my favorite ‘downstairs’ characters is Agatha Christie’s Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Oxford trained academic turned high paid housekeeper of your dreams, in Miss Marple’s 4:50 to Paddington book. Lucy is chef extraordinaire, household chaos tamer, and brilliant sleuth assistant. In my mind she set a whole new career path for women and clearly defined what she would and wouldn’t do, took pride in her work, demanded a high wage, didn’t worry what-so-ever about class distinctions, and loved the freedom she had to move around, and determine who her next clients would be. She was an inspiring ‘downstairs’ character, paving a path for the new class of ‘servant’.
On the big screen and small, Julian Fellowes gives us a birds-eye view of ‘downstairs’ lives in Gosford Park and Downton Abbey. The servants in Gosford Park work away, seeing to every comfort of their masters and mistresses. Snobbery is very much alive and well. The DA servants seemed a bit happier as portrayed, and enjoyed a bit more interaction with their mistresses and masters, but there were still clear boundaries between the classes. I cringed when character Lady Grantham yelled at Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore for trying on one of her coats for Mrs. Hughes upcoming wedding to Carson, not realizing Lady Mary had told them to pick one. She apologized at the end and gave Mrs. Hughes the coat, but would a anyone ever forget that kind of behavior? Chauffer Tom crossed all social boundaries and married Lady Sybil, only to be left widowed with a young child. I wonder if Lord and Lady Grantham would have taken him into their household, awarding him an aristocratic status in ‘real’ life…
You’ll read when Bridges, the head butler, Mrs. Smythe, head housekeeper, Chef Karl, and Bates the chauffer are interacting with the main characters of Cherrywood Hall—giving their polite help and respectful suggestions to catch the deviants. I can guarantee you that they will receive the same respect and politeness in response—and their roles are highly regarded by all. It’s modern times now, time to lift any negative stigma on working ‘downstairs’ in my book. Aunt Pippa would approve 🙂
Crowns and Kisses,
P.S. Life Below Stairs, True Lives of Edwardian Servants, by author Alison Maloney, an interesting, informative read! Don’t forget LA Times Festival of Books is this weekend at the USC campus, hope to see you there!