Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Upstairs Downstairs; To Celebrate!

To celebrate the new Upstairs Downstairs, which plays in 3 episodes on PBS "Masterpiece" starting April 10th here in the US of A, I thought I would review some aspects of the old series. In this greatly loved and long running production, we learned much about the workings of an Edwardian household.

We learned, first, that the servants area, including the kitchen, was downstairs, and that it had it's own doorway. Servants were never seen coming in the front door. There was a rigid hierarchy among the servants, with Mr. Hudson, the butler reigning over the others. In a larger household, we would have seen him sitting at the head of the table, but this little kitchen had, if I recall correctly, a round one.

The upstairs family was headed by Richard Bellamy, Member of Parliament, but in the watching we learn that it is his wife, the Lady Marjorie, who deals with the staff, and mostly through her butler. She, however, meets and hires the help. Kitchen maids and the scullery maid, who gets to do the worst of the dirty work, came under the authority of the cook, Mrs. Bridges.

The house, 165 Eaton Place, was one of the smaller homes in the richest development in the world, Belgravia. Another part, therein, was Belgrave Square, which had enormous mansions, occupied by dukes and others of the highest rank.. Belgrave Square now houses mostly embassies, but once again, there are some residencies being prepared.

At the Bellamy's, we watch the ritual of the afternoon tea. Ladies in attendance would wear their hats and gloves throughout the meal (yes, it was a meal, usually with neatly cut sandwiches, as dinner was served four hours later at 8:00). If a lady was going to eat bread and butter, however, she was allowed to remove her gloves. There were, indeed, rules for everything! Should Mr. Bellamy have needed to see his wife at this time of day, he would enter with his hat and stick, the appropriate way to show that he was aware of the short length of time that it would be acceptable for him to remain in the room, and that he would comply. The butler would bring in the tea, which was to be poured by the hostess herself. In a larger household, it may have been carried in by a footman assisting the butler. Mrs. Bellamy knew better, of course, than to pour milk into cups before the tea, or she would come to be known as a "miffer", a milk-firster, and would develop a reputation as "socially impossible".

The setting, Edwardian England, was a grand time in many ways. Victoria's last decades had been marked by her endless mourning for Albert, and she was rarely seen in public. Edward, though, enjoyed the pleasures of life, and his country joined in the cheer. A sad note, at the start of his reign, was the cancellation of his coronation due to his appendicitis. No doubt a small fortune had been spent preparing, but it was all put on hold for two months. Londoners were thrilled that he moved his court from Windsor to Buckingham Palace, which he redecorated. His wife was lovely, and the family, adored. It was a golden age. All the pomp and ceremony that the Prince Regent, in the early 1800s, had initiated was carried on, and is still today as a mark of royal events.

Marjorie and her guests were stunning in their Parisian corsets, with, of course, only real whale bone, and bought at the London Corset Company. The ladies bustles contributed, as well, to their stately and elegant profiles. Should anything go wrong with a lady's clothing, her lady's maid was the one to call. Rose would have been well trained, likely as an apprentice to a seamstress, for the role. I'm sure she could also efficiently remove soil from a silk dress by rubbing it with stale bread crumbs. Where the wet wash was hung out in Belgravia, I cannot say, but it certainly would not have been out of doors.

The inexperienced house parlour maid could purchase a booklet describing her duties for 3d. An older woman would have to provide references, called a character, to show that she was already well aware of the responsibilities and had previously carried them out in a fine way. Lady Marjorie would certainly have been cautious about who she hired, but took on a maid with a false character, who, we later learn had been a jailbird! Her name, Clemence, was inappropriate for a servant, so Her Ladyship changed it to Sarah.

England was under one dark cloud, however, and Richard Bellamy was most disturbed by it. That cloud was the arrogant and distrusted Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, Queen Victoria's grandson gone wrong, a major contributor to the Great War. Elizabeth Bellamy, the somewhat rebellious daughter, brought home a German Baron, much to her father's distress.

There is so much more to say about the times, but if you are still here with me, I will just relate that the actress who played Marjorie decided to leave the show to strike out on her own in movies, though she was not successful and regretted the decision, even before the show in which she was written out was aired. She was taken out of the story by traveling to America on a ship called the Titanic, never to return to 165 Eaton Place.

This great series may be available at your local library on DVD, and it is also available on Netflix. It is well worth the many hours it will take you to watch it! Much of my information was taken from The World of Upstairs Downstairs by Mollie Hardwick. Other information was gleaned in books long ago read and returned to the library and from Wikipedia.

Update: And now that the show has begun, please share your viewpoints on the new episodes!

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