I recently watched “Victoria” (2016) a new Masterpiece series. There were eight episodes, that followed the early life of the 18 year old queen, her courtship and marriage to the German Prince Albert. Jenna Coleman is a beautiful, determined, yes, stubborn queen. It was exciting to see her stand her ground, choosing advisors she trusted, and policies she believed in. Although cautious about Albert in the beginnng, they seemed to develop an open and loving relationship. I am looking forward to season 2.
For decades Diane and I have enjoyed the BBC Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. “Upstairs Downstairs” was probably our first Masterpiece experience in 1971-75. There were five series; 68 episodes. We watched the wealthy, aristocratic Bellamy family (upstairs) who lived at 165 Eaton Place in London’s Belgravia, interact with their servants (downstairs) for thirty years (1903- 1930s). Family and personal stories unfolded in the context of historical events. Characters seem to become real people — remember the butler Mr. Hudson, footman Alfred, or the cook Mrs. Bridges. In 2010, the series resumed through the 1930s with some of the same characters. We watched the new series and then re-watched some older episodes.
The number of quality Masterpiece shows is really amazing. Among our favorites are Lillie, I Claudius, The Duchess of Duke Street, Arthur and George, Foyle’s War, Sherlock, Indian Summers, and Mr. Selfridge. There are many others we haven’t seen.
Our all time favorite is probably “The Duchess of Duke Street” (1976-77)., created by John Hawkesworth. We watched Louisa Trotter (Gemma Jones) work her way up from being a skivvy (low level domestic woman servant) to become a cook for the King, owner of the Bentinck Hotel, and cook-caterer for the British aristocracy. She was a determined, elegant, rowdy, convention breaking young woman who wanted to become a great chef. She succeeds, with a little luck and help from friends. Charlie Tyrell (Christopher Cazenove), a young aristocrat seems unsuccessful in his attempt to seduce her but they form a life long friendship. There is Starr (John Carter), the rigid door man. Who could forget Merriman (John Welsh) the house butler? Or the Major (Richard Vernon), a reconteur, hanger on.
I didn’t know it until recently, but “The Duchess of Duke Street” was based on the life of Rosa Lewis, like Louisa, a middle class girl who breaks into society. There have been several biographies of Rosa. I recently read “The Duchess of Jeremy Street” by Daphne Fielding, an upper class woman who came to know Rosa. Born in 1867, Rosa left home at the age of 12 to become a servant. She worked her way up the line to become a head kitchen maid. In 1887 she began cooking in private homes, her first client was Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston, who hired her to cater a dinner attended by Queen Victoria’s son, The Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII of England. The Prince congratulated her on the meal, gave her a tip, Rosa fainted. Her success was assured.
Rosa had begun to abandon Isabelle Beeton’s “old style” cuisine for lighter fare. Mrs. Beeton’s “Book of Household Management” had dominated British cooking from it’s publication in 1861. Rosa leaned toward the new style of Escoffier, who would come to dominate French cuisine for decades. King Edward said “She takes more pains with a cabbage than a chicken. . . She gives me nothing sloppy, nothing colored up to dribble on my shirt front.” Rumor suggested that Rosa was the King mistress. Her parents pushed marriage; she married a butler, Excelsior Lewis, but it didn’t last.
In 1902 with King Edward’s help she purchased the Cavendish Hotel. Rosa became the hostess for the British aristocracy and she had a soft spot for wealthy Americans. During World War I she provided rooms, meals, and always champagne to soldiers and veterans. If they couldn’t pay she padded the bills of the wealthy. She became known as the “Queen of Cooks” or “The Duchess of Jermyn Street.” The hotel was located at Jermyn and Duke streets. The hotel and Rosa’s fortunes slid in the 1930s-50s. The Cavendish became rough on the edges; the times were changing. Rosa died in 1852. Her friend Edith Jeffrey operated the hotel for another 10 years. Since then it’s been demolished and a new Cavendish has risen on the site.
There are many similar incidents in Rosa’s life and the BBC show, “The Duchess of Duke Street.” One unforgettable event. Rosa (Louisa) buys an ocean front house in Brighton. The Yacht Club had hoped to buy the property to provide rooms for the ladies. Rosa outbid them. One evening she ís annoy with the Club and instructs a servant to collect the “pots” which she proceeds to lob into her neighborbors garden tea party. Truth can be stranger than fiction.
I like to travel, read, live thematically, so I recently re-read “Below Stairs: the classic kitchen maid’s memoir that inspired “Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey.” Margaret Powell published “Below Stairs” in 1968. Powell entered domestic service as a young girl; her family needed the money. Most of her placements were less than the best, certainly not Eaton Place or Downton Abbey. But she provides a lot of insight into the relationships and differences between “upstairs” and” downstairs.” Beginning in the 1920s, she worked in the homes of middle class gentry, short on money, but still high on expectations. The golden age of domestic service was ending. That decline is echoed in the Crawley family’s attempt to hold on the the traditions, property, and life style of Downton Abbey.
Powell takes us into a world where servants are frequently not treated as humans. Cigar smoking, brandy drinking gents might talk about sensitive topics after dinner assured no one would hear; servants in the room were invisible. I just got a flash of President Trump discussing national policy issues at at dinner table at Mar-a-Lago; other club members were invisible although they listened and photographed the event.
Dating was frowned upon, although marriage might be a young woman’s only escape from service. The British system wasn’t slavery in the American fashion but servants were expected to give up their freedoms and be totally loyal to the “upstairs” family. Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) on Downton Abbey exemplifies the dedicated, give all, servant; Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) seems to be in it for himself. Interestingly most of us probably find Carson sympathetic and dislike Barrow.
Margaret Powell pulls no punches. She is intelligent, “I didn’t know you read,, Margaret.” She mocks the “horrible sensible” Christmas presents — thick woolen stockings and rough fabric to make uniforms — generous gifts from her employers. Never a silk stocking or something you might want. Powell is determined to beat the odds and find a husband. She does.
“Below Stairs” was first published in 1968. Powell was featured in the media and wrote several other books. A fascinating story. Reading Powell, I wonder if Masterpiece is too romantic about the system. Although there are raised eyebrows and some resistance when chauffeur Tom Branson marries into the family; he is accepted. All is well. Apologists for American slavery often talked about “good masters” and a “good life on the plantation.” I think when I return to view “Upstairs” and “Downton” it will be with a new questions.
On a personal note, my Aunt Lucy was a domestic servant. Turn-of-the-century single Irish woman, she worked for a family, the Buckmans, in Bristol Borough. Lucy had a certain independence but I also remember a strong loyalty to the Buchanan family. She lived and vacationed with them. I don’t know how long; or her duties. Retired in the early 1960s, she moved in with my grandmother — not a happy arrangement. A number of times she took me to Philadelphia on the train. We shopped and had lunch in Wanamaker’s Crystal Tea Room. Amazing when I think about it now. She also started me stamp collecting, fed stray cats, and encouraged me to be myself. When Lucy died in Nannie’s apartment, it was several days before anyone found her.
We’ve always enjoyed Masterpiece. Hope Trump doesn’t cut funds to PBS.