Do you need a Downton Abbey fix? You might want to read They Also Serve: The Real Life Story of My Lifetime in Service as a Butler by Bob Sharpe. Set mostly in the decades between the 1920s and the 1950s, Bob chronicles his more than thirty years in service, rising from hall boy to the highest position in service—the butler. Beginning with his youth and ending with his retirement after the death of his wife, Bob talks about how he learned to carry wood up and downstairs daily for 30 fires, how to best polish shoes, how to properly clean the silver and how to “turn into marble” for hours on end as a footman. Bob recalls those servants that showed him the ropes and others that would have rather shown him the door.
There were more than a few points in the book that made me think of Downton, complete with a Dowager who’s know more for her eccentricities and her fondness for a good-looking footman (shades of The Dowager Duchess of Grantham?) than her social connections. At one point when Bob is discussing how he got the job as footman in the Dowager’s household, they actually take a caliper to his legs…after all the Dowager did enjoy a good-looking leg on her footmen! I actually laughed out loud during that story! There are also saucy tales of servants meeting clandestinely in dark hallways, cooks who use and abuse their maids, and the ever eccentric Lords and Ladies of Britain. Bob does not truly give away any damaging secrets, remaining ever the loyal butler, but does make inference to incest, homosexuality, attempted murder and more! It appears that life in service was never dull.
Probably the most vivid observation that stood out to me was when Bob was discussing the various households he worked for. On some estates, he was invisible where on others he was invaluable. One of his employers was known for his eccentricity towards his servants—he actually cared for them and often employed them when they would have been turned away by other households. Bob reflected that this employer was the most kind and that kindness made him not resent being a servant.
This was a really interesting read and I would definitely recommend it for those interested in the upstairs/downstairs aspect of life on an English estate or in a posh London home. One word of warning, the book gets a little plodding in some places. Some chapters are a little slower-paced than others, but hang in there, it’s well worth the read!