What Downton didn’t tell you
While, throughout the whole of the first TV series, personal and private lives were explored in some detail, the daily duties of the servants were only lightly sketched. We all knew the maids were worked hard, but so were others – including, you may not have realised, the lowly footman.
(This last word on the footman comes from Mrs Beeton’s voluminous notes in the 1880 edition of her Household Management)
The footman in small families where only one man is kept has many of the duties of the upper servants to perform as well as his own and more constant occupation; he will also have the arrangement of his time more immediately under his own control, and he will do well to reduce it to a methodical division. All his rough work should be done before breakfast is ready, when he must appear clean and in a presentable state.
After breakfast, when everything belonging to his pantry is cleaned and put in its place, the furniture in the dining and drawing rooms requires rubbing. Towards noon the parlour luncheon is to be prepared, and he must be at his mistress’s disposal to go out with the carriage or follow her if she walks out.
Politeness and civility to visitors is one of the things masters and mistresses have a right to expect, and should exact rigorously. When visitors present themselves, the servant charged with the duty of opening the door will open it promptly and answer without hesitation if the family are “not at home” or “engaged”, which generally means the same thing, and might be oftener used with advantage to morals.
On the contrary, if he has no such orders, he will answer affirmatively, open the door wide to admit them, and precede them to open the door of the drawing-room. If the family are not there, he will place chairs for them, open the blinds (if the room is too dark), and intimate civilly that he goes to inform his mistress. If the lady is in her drawing-room he announces the name of the visitors, having previously acquainted himself with it. In this part of his duty it is necessary to be very careful to repeat the names correctly; mispronouncing names is very apt to give offence, and leads sometimes to other disagreeables.
(Prescribed by Mrs Beeton in the 1880 edition of her Household Management)
At meal-times: While attentive to all, the footman should be obtrusive to none; he should give nothing but on a waiter [tray] and always hand it with the left hand and on the left side of the person he serves, and hold it so that the guest may take it with ease. In lifting dishes from the table he should use both hands, and remove them with care so that nothing is spilt on the table-cloth or on the dresses of the guests.
Masters as well as servants sometimes make mistakes, but it is not expected that a servant will correct any omissions, even if he should have time to notice them, although with the best of intentions. Thus it would not be correct, for instance, if he observed that his master took wine with the ladies all round, as some gentlemen still continue to do, but stopped at someone to nudge him on the shoulder and say, as was done by a servant of a Scottish gentleman, “What ails you at her in the green gown?” It will be better to leave the lady unnoticed than for the servant thus to turn his master into ridicule.
In opening wine, let it be done quietly and without shaking the bottle; if crusted, let it be inclined to the crusted side and decanted while in that position. In opening champagne, it is not necessary to discharge it with a pop; properly cooled, the cork is easily extracted without any explosion. When the cork is out, the mouth of the bottle should be wiped with the napkin over the footman’s arm.
At tea-time: As soon as the drawing-room bell rings for tea, the footman enters with the tray which has been previously prepared; hands the tray round to the company, with cream and sugar, the tea and coffee being generally poured out, while another attendant hands cakes, toast or biscuits. If it is an ordinary family party, where this social meal is prepared by the mistress, he carries the urn or kettle as the case may be, hands round the toast or such other eatable as may be required, removing the whole in the same manner when tea is over.
On excursions: When required to go out with the carriage it is the footman’s duty to see that it has come to the door perfectly clean, and that the glasses and sashes and linings are free from dust. In receiving messages at the carriage door he should turn his ear to the speaker, so as to comprehend what is said, in order that he may give his directions to the coachman clearly. When the house he is to call at is reached, he should knock and return to the carriage for orders. In closing the door upon the family, he should see that the handle is securely turned and that no part of the ladies’ dress is shut in.
(Prescribed by Mrs Beeton in the 1880 edition of her Household Management)
Where a single footman, or odd man, is the only male servant, then whatever his ostensible position, he is required to make himself generally useful. He has to clean the knives and shoes, the furniture, the plate; answer the visitors who call, the drawing room and parlour bells; and do all the errands. His life is no sinecure, and a methodical arrangement of his time will be necessary in order to perform his many duties with any satisfaction to himself or his master.
The footman in livery only finds himself in stockings, shoes and washing. Where silk stockings or other articles of linen are worn, they are provided by the family, as well as his livery, a working dress consisting of a pair of overalls, a waistcoat, a fustian jacket, with a white or jean one for times when he is liable to be called to answer the door or wait at breakfast; and in quitting his service he is expected to leave behind him any livery had within six months.
The footman is expected to rise early in order to get through all his dirty work before the family are stirring. Boots and shoes, and knives and forks, should be cleaned, lamps in use trimmed, his master’s clothes brushed, the furniture rubbed over; so that he may put aside his working dress, tidy himself, and appear in a clean jacket to lay the cloth and prepare breakfast for the family.
We need hardly dwell on the boot-cleaning process: three good brushes and blacking must be provided; one of the brushes hard, to brush off the mud; the other soft, to lay on the blacking; the third of a medium hardness, for polishing; and each should be kept for its particular use. The blacking should be kept corked up, except when in use, and applied to the brush with a sponge tied to a stick which, when put away, rests in a notch cut in the cork. When boots come in very muddy it is a good practice to wash off the mud and wipe them dry with a sponge; then leave them to dry very gradually on their sides, taking care they are not placed near the fire, or scorched. Much delicacy of treatment is required in cleaning ladies’ boots, so as to make the leather look well-polished, and the upper part retain a fresh appearance, with the lining free from hand-marks, which are very offensive to a lady of refined tastes.
(This is the first section – a quarter – of his duties. To continue might be offensive to a reader of refined tastes.)
Back before the days when we bought books in book shops and Book Tokens were made to look like rip-off store cards, they were attractive things made of paper and, astonishingly, might be designed by an artist of the stature of John Nash.
How would you like one of those for your birthday? (Even if it doesn’t look a typical Nash.)
That’s when a present felt like a present.
< sigh >
“If people would but leave children to themselves; if teachers would cease to bully them; if parents would not insist on directing their thoughts and dominating their feelings – those thoughts and feelings which are a mystery to all (for how much do you and I know of each other, of our children, of our fathers, of our neighbour, and how far more beautiful and sacred are the thoughts of the poor lad or girl whom you govern likely to be than those of the world-corrupted person who rules him?) – if, I say, parents and masters would leave their children alone a little more, small harm would accrue . . . ”
“Let us have a new fictitious literature, in which not only the Bores shall be women, but the villains too. Look at Shakespeare – do, pray, look at Shakespeare. Who is most in fault, in that shocking business of the murder of King Duncan? Lady Macbeth, to be sure! Look at King Lear, with a small family of only three daughters, and two of the three, wretches, and even the third an aggravating girl, who can’t be commonly civil to her own father in the first Act, out of sheer contradiction, because her elder sisters happen to have been civil before her! Ah! Shakespeare was a great man, and he knew our sex, and was not afraid to show he knew it. What a blessing it would be, if some of his literary brethren, in modern times, could muster courage enough to follow his example!”
Wilkie Collins, pretending here to write as a women in a piece he subtitled ‘A Shockingly Rude Article’, shows that he is nowadays underrated as a satirist and comic writer. There are laughs for sure in ‘The Moonstone’ and ‘The Woman in White’ but laughs are harder to find in many of his other novels, which are darker – as was his life, of course; being increasingly racked with pain and stuffed with laudanum didn’t help. His essays are seldom read now. Essays by Dickens – even Thackeray perhaps – are still read and, good as they are, they are no funnier than those by Collins. All three writers wrote ‘squibs’ for magazines and journals – Punch employed the very best writers – and, in the case of Collins, perhaps the easiest way to get a taste is to dip into one of his two collections entitled ‘My Miscellanies’. He may not have given women a chance in his ‘Shockingly Rude Article’ but that’s no reason for us not to give him one.
A thought for 2014 from Lucius Annabus Seneca (4BC to AD65):
“I have no respect for any study whatsoever if its end is the making of money. Such studies are to me unworthy ones. They involve the putting out of skills to hire, and are only of value in so far as they may develop the mind without occupying it for long. Time should be spent on them only so long as one’s mental abilities are not up to dealing with higher things. They are our apprenticeship, not our real work.”
(From Letter 88, if you’d like to read more.)