Chambermaids, butlers, housekeepers – for many of us in America, these are people only found in literature like The Remains of the Day and television drama like Upstairs Downstairs. But little do we realize that the culture of servanthood was once a part of our own society and still influences our thoughts and lives today. I recently watched the first season of Downton Abbey, a BBC show set in the early 1900s, while simultaneously reading The Help, which is a novel about African-American maids in 1960s Mississippi. Besides having images of maids and butlers invade my dreams, I enjoyed comparing the two societies and discovering both their similarities and differences.
Downton Abbey is a historical estate in the reticent countryside of England, where the aristocratic family of the Crawleys live: the Earl and Countess and their three daughters. While the estate might seem peaceful on the outside, it is in fact a well-oiled machine held together by the many staff members and their cooperation with the Crawleys.
The hierarchy of Downton Abbey:
Lord and Lady Grantham are on top of the pyramid, with their children holding some authority as well. They are in charge of all affairs on the estate, and though they may not know every little detail, all things are under their authority.
At the top of the staff are Mr. Carson, the butler, and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper. Working as a team, they are in charge of all the servants, from the valet to the lady’s maids.
The male servants under Mr. Carson range from Thomas and William, the first and second footmen, to Mr. Bates, Lord Grantham’s personal valet, to Branson, the chauffeur.
The female servants under Mrs. Hughes range from Mrs. Patmore, the cook, to Miss O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s lady’s maid, to Anna and Gwen, the housemaids.
All of the servants must work together to ensure that the household runs smoothly. If one of them stepped out of line and crossed the boundaries of his or her place, the system would run down.
During the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s, Mississippi was one of the largest battlefields against prejudice and race abuse. Told from the perspective of the women in Jackson, The Help describes the world of white women who stay at home and their black maids.
The young white women of Jackson, Mississippi have little to do with their time except plan charity banquets and play bridge. Hilly Holbrook is the leader of the pack, and whatever she says often goes, even if it means building separate bathrooms outside for the hired help. Skeeter Phelan is the unmarried one, the one with even less responsibility, but more ambition. Elizabeth Leefolt is a young mother who is led by Hilly and her own inability to love, even her own children. Celia Foote is a lonely newlywed who isn’t accepted into Jackson society.
The help consists of working black women who struggle to make ends meet, who live on the other side of the tracks, who raise the white ladies’ kids for them. Aibileen Clark has had her fair share of white babies to raise, moving on when each of them gets old enough to learn about racism. Minny Jackson has an attitude and a mouth that gets her into trouble, making it hard for her to keep a job. Skeeter’s disappeared maid Constantine is a strong presence in the story as well, as she represents Skeeter’s starting point of compassion.
Both Downton Abbey and The Help are about social status. Both the servants and their masters are born into their positions as low class and high class citizens.
In The Help, the social position of the maids is due to a mindset remnant from the slavery days. These women (and their families) are looked down upon by most of the white people in Jackson because of the fact that they are black, that they are of a different race. They are not scorned merely for their color, but because generations of racism have become ingrained in the minds of the people. They are treated poorly, and most of the women who hire them put on airs of superiority and condescension.
In Downton Abbey, the servants are treated with more respect. Racism is not the issue, but social standing due to ancestry is. Still, though not precisely condescended to, the servants are always to remain within the bounds set by the aristocracy. Their masters treat them with respect as fellow human beings however, and likewise the servants (in most cases) respect those in authority over them. The servants have the option to try to better themselves, to make their own way through the world, and even though they cannot achieve aristocracy, they seem content.
While the social problems are obviously more prominent in The Help, I cannot but wonder why it is that mankind tends to break into these social orders, these hierarchies. Even today, we tend to respect those with power and money more than those without. Why should birth and wealth determine your position in society? People should have the freedom to choose the kind of life they live. This seems like a very American principle, but let’s not forget that not too long ago, slavery and servant class were a part of our society as well. Let us be careful not to glorify a class of people, just because they belong to that class.