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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Cline Barton

Veronica's #WritersDiary: Upstairs/Downstairs; Positioning the Class Divide in a Storyline


“I think accepting change is quite as important as defending the past.”

— Cora, Lady Grantham, Downton Abbey, Season 3


In today's post I want to chat about the cross-genre topic of incorporating and positioning the class divide in a story. I'll be focusing the discussion on what happens when servants are included in the storyline with the high society crowd. Their interactions did happen IRL, despite the separate entrances and staircases. Let's think about it, if a person was in close proximity to you day-in and day-out for decades in your not-so-humble abode, wouldn't you be a bit curious about them?


Series such as Upstairs/Downstairs and Downton Abbey took a giant leap when they included the life events of the characters whose hard work made these grand establishments and their main floor residents able to reside in the lap of luxury. The inclusion of their personal stories into the series storylines was eye opening, even scandalous, for many viewers when they debuted.


Before these ground-breaking series, we typically watched or read about the 'downstairs' characters toiling long hours for a paltry wage, while the 'upstairs' folk enjoyed a decadent lifestyle. Servants were most often 'seen, but not heard' in storylines. Manners and civility most times went to the wayside when they were spoken to. 🙄


If by chance their characters were included, they were often not portrayed in a flattering manner---seen at times as bumbling or lacking on the intelligence front. Their plight of being born into extreme poverty, perhaps orphaned, and having no educational path or career option available never seemed to be explained in early depictions.


We've seen many instances in films where the 'upstairs' residents had their, ahem, jollies with the 'downstairs' help (Gosford Park comes to mind). It was not a moment to be looked upon fondly. #Nope


#Gasp Suppose a 'downstairs' person crossed the societal stairwell and fell in love with an 'upstairs' member? I can only think of one instance where it ended well. Methinks chauffeur, Tom Branson and Lady Sybil's relationship in #DA was the extremely, rare exception with a HEA ending. Most who took this path were to be banished forever from their home and society.


What happens when the 'help' becomes obsessed with the lord or lady of the manor? In Daphne de Maurier's Rebecca, the second Mrs. de Winter was given quite the chilly (and creepy) reception by the housekeeper at Manderley, Mrs. Danvers. The #2 wife would never be #1 in her eyes. We know how that ended... #DunDunDun


It was amusing to me in scenes when the head butler at Downton Abbey, Mr. Carsen, seemed more educated on the manor house and etiquette decorum than the owners were. He prided himself on knowing the history and protocols of his surroundings--Why didn't they ask Carsen? (#MyBad, couldn't resist 😁)


I found the changes in the Downton Abbey films from the series refreshing and amusing at times. From the movie posters (courtesy of @DowntonAbbey Twitter timeline), you clearly see the class divide between upstairs and downstairs--but the servants are becoming empowered as the world and working class systems evolve and adapt with the times.


In the first movie, 'Downton Abbey', the main drama surprisingly was not entirely with the up-stair folk, but between the servants of #DA vs. the 'royal' servants of Buckingham Palace. Anna and her Mr. Bates are quite the clever ones!

In the second film, 'Downton Abbey; A New Era', the drama shifted from high society to #Gasp film crew and actors; with the servants saving the day! I found the shift in the movie poster layout was quite telling too, with the old high society guard relegated to the bottom of the ad. I won't give any spoilers, let's just say times, they be a-changing...


For my hypothetically upper-crust, cozy mystery series aka #PoshPeopleDoingBadThings, which is set in the present day, I've opted for the more inclusive approach of working class vs. high society in my tales (notice I didn't use the word servant... has that word become victim of the cancel culture???).


Nanny Figgy roams the halls of Cherrywood freely and is known to have a wee dram with the gentry once the weanns are tucked in. Let's not forget Mama and her main man, Chef Karl. Why, even Aunt Margaret has a relationship with an actor! Finally, Max and Elliot represent the estate for PR purposes, but have become highly respected, best friends and adopted-family members with the Lancaster-Williams clan.


With the Castlewood Manor film production on the estate, we're inundated with cast and crew in the storylines. Villagers are always welcome at the manor and vineyard, although Gemma has put her almost-royal foot down recently when it comes to sending her post cards in the mail. #JustSayin 🍇💀🍷

My faux royals (thank goodness I didn't include the real life #RF members! 👀) interact with all the characters and are given the respect of their titles and roles.


I like to think that they get to let their crowns down a bit at Cherrywood Hall and Hillcrest--but in the end, we'll curtsey and bow when required. I guess my American background is showing a bit (or, a lot) in the stories, but I do have the utmost respect for the customs and traditions of the monarchy and realm. One must keep Auntie Pippa happy! 💖👑


I've only touched the tip of the class divide iceberg in today's post. I haven't addressed other societal chasms including race, gender, politics, and religious boundaries to name a few. These definitely can impact a storyline and its characters as well.


If your tale takes place in the past, how do you incorporate the changed values and views of the present day into an historical storyline? Secondly, should they be incorporated even if tabu now? Or stay true to the societal norms and behaviors of previous generations? Points to ponder as an author, indeed...


Honestly, it can be a bit intimidating to discuss these topics in an open forum these days--not because I don't value the opinions of others or want to learn more on these subjects. I just don't want to be subjected to trolling--a very real concern with social media and the cancel culture of the internet. Writers and their books have definitely been impacted--you see physical and threatening acts of violence headlined in the news almost daily... What has this done to the story/idea creativity flow for projects in development? 🤔


Today's topic has kept my little gray cells buzzing. I'd be interested in the thoughts, comments, and concerns you have as a writer or reader on the topic. In the meantime, keep on, keepin' on #writers--I can't wait to read what you write! It's Wednesday, time for #DearDiary:


In case you'd like to pursue this discussion topic in more detail...


Join authors Amy Reade, Cynthia Raleigh, Bibiana Krall, Greg Raleigh and moi on Sunday, August 28th in the #MurdersWeWrite room on the Clubhouse app at 4PM EDT! We're discussing: Upstairs versus Downstairs; What is Tabu? Mysteries and the space between social class and the invisible lines crossed in stories... 💀🌹


Theatrical mayhem from the writers of twitter this week...


Author K.T. McGivens, The Plot at the Pearson Playhouse, A Katie Porter Mystery,

5

It's the final production at the historic Pearson Playhouse before much needed renovations begin. Reporter, Katie Porter and her friends and colleagues are working hard to make the opening night a success. As the rehearsals wind up, mishaps in the crumbling playhouse may mean curtains for all!


A beautiful actress causes heads to turn at rehearsals, leading to a few, broken hearts. Danger lurks on the set--someone is determined to bring the production to a crashing halt. As Katie learns more about the playhouse's past, secrets emerge that will impact its future. Will she and her friends uncover who's behind the treacherous happenings?


Author McGivens weaves a gripping whodunnit in book three of this wonderful cozy mystery series. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters in this tale and their theatrical conundrums. You'll keep guessing 'til the end--a highly recommended read and series!



Next up in the reading queue:



Off to Solvang we go!

It's that time of year where we head north to the charming, Danish-inspired village of Solvang for our annual, magical, musical night under the stars! This year we'll be watching Into the Woods at the lovely, outdoor amphitheater; a fantasy/fairytale production I've been looking forward to for some time. I can't wait to go roaming around the shops and boutiques too---I'm looking for some Hygge inspired decor. More on this trip coming up!

*Photo courtesy of Pacific Conservatory Theatre


Welcome to my world. Enjoy the rest of your week and weekend, friends!


Crowns and Kisses,

Veronica


P.S. This is a view of the California coastline due west of Solvang, which you don't really see when driving up there on the 101 Hwy. OH and I were able to enjoy this view when we took the Amtrak coastal liner up to San Fransisco when I was researching material for Deadly Receptions: The Debut of Castlewood Manor. I not only discovered new, lovely, coastal views, but gathered some deadly ideas for mayhem on a train! 💖👑 Gemma and Rikkhe approve...



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6 Comments


amreade
Aug 24, 2022

Fascinating post, Veronica, and obviously well-researched. I believe it's important for writers of historical fiction to be true to the vernacular and customs of the day. Though it is often offensive to our 21st-century ears, it is essential that people understand how life and language used to be and how much or little we've been enlightened. It is my preference to see authors address the issue in an Author's Note in the front of the book: this way readers understand that the author is staying true to history but also realize that the author is acknowledging the repellent practices and language of the past.


Great GIFs in this one, too! Incidentally, my husband saw Vanessa Williams in Into the Woods…

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Veronica Cline Barton
Veronica Cline Barton
Aug 24, 2022
Replying to

I agree with you, Amy for the inclusion of the norms of the times in a story. Personally, I think a story is watered down if you try and infuse 21st century values or trends in an historical tale---trying to pretend things didn't happen isn't being true, IMHO. I think the use of Author's notes and preludes are an excellent method of addressing any concerns--great input!


We're looking forward to Into the Woods, I'm sure I'll be humming the tunes tomorrow, LOL. xo 💖👑

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uberhappy
Aug 24, 2022

Agreed. This is fertile ground to cover and an interesting question as to how much to add or leave out.

I personally prefer stories where there is a combination of what life looks like on both sides Of the divide.


It makes for a more complex story that way and helps to create empathy, when in the past many, hard-working people were invisible and left without their moment to speak. Great post and kudos to the authors mentioned!

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Veronica Cline Barton
Veronica Cline Barton
Aug 24, 2022
Replying to

Thanks ,UberHappy! It's a complex topic, indeed--and room for loads of discussion. Again, my main concern is the creativity impact--what ideas are stifled? TTY on Sunday for MwW! 💖👑

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Jena.C.Henry
Jena.C.Henry
Aug 24, 2022

Thank you for being brave enough to consider these social conditions. Many important thoughts here. The Industrial Age changed everything, didn’t it? Also, I just read that executive assistants to extremely wealthy people now command salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. What troubles me about England (and thanks to our beloved internet I’ve become good friends with an English writer) is that they are now pretty much a secular society. I could discuss all this forever- so I’ll stop and wish you a happy week!

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Veronica Cline Barton
Veronica Cline Barton
Aug 24, 2022
Replying to

It's a topic of great interest to me, Jena. We have so many considerations to take into account when writing and the societal layers and interactions in a story are a big component to be considered. Thanks for stopping in, as always--have a great week! 💖👑

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