Would the housekeeper really marry the butler?
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
EVER since Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes were seen coyly holding hands at that servants' outing to the seaside, Downton Abbey viewers waited patiently for the payoff. And, one year later, so it came: a gruff marriage proposal from the man resembling a cautious yet loveable badger.
'Well, that's the point', muttered Carson. 'I do want to be stuck with you.'
'I'm not convinced I can be hearing this right,' said Mrs Hughes, dumbstruck.
'You are, if you think I am asking you to marry me.'
'Of course I'll marry you, you old booby! I thought you'd never ask.'
And now we’ve seen them tie the knot – though not, it has to be said, consummate their marriage in a sagging brass bed ('warts and all', as Mrs Hughes had rather bravely hinted). But as with all things Downton, was it concocted just up to indulge us? Did such things happen in real life? Could two hard-boiled, dignified upper servants soften up enough to start a relationship? And would such a relationship be tolerated, or would it spell the end of their careers?
I confess that a butler-housekeeper romance was one of my goals when I embarked on research for The Housekeeper's Tale. I was after a poignant, true-life story of two outwardly repressed characters, thrown together professionally in the basement of a large English country house. I wanted to find evidence of a budding relationship amid the accounts ledgers and silver plate; perhaps a tightly folded billet doux that spoke of stirring feelings. If those feelings weren't mutual, then I'd settle for a tale of unrequited love and a broken heart, as with Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1930s butler Stevens can't acknowledge his feelings for housekeeper Miss Kenton, and so the opportunity passes).
But, initially, all I could find was evidence of rancour. At Erddig Hall in North Wales in the 1890s, cook-housekeeper Miss Harrison was often found in the kitchen 'the worse for Beer'.
When her side-line in selling pheasants was exposed she was given her marching orders, at which point the butler Mr Jones was dismissed too. Jones wrote to his boss in a firm, indignant hand: 'I could do very well with a good sensible woman; I am sure the house should be one of the happiest in the land, but it is one of the most miserable all through one person – cook-housekeeper Mrs Harrison.'
Vita Sackville West brought vividly to life the tetchy relationship between housekeeper Mrs Wickenden and butler Mr Vigeon in The Edwardians, her fictionalised version of Knole in Kent. Theirs was a 'slightly hostile alliance.'
'It was known that an occasional clash occurred between Mrs Wickenden and Mr Vigeon; and when that happened, in however dignified a privacy, the repercussion was felt throughout the house… But when the steward's room was full of guests, and the table had been extended by the addition of several leaves, no indications of any schism were allowed to appear. Mrs Wickenden and Mr Vigeon, presiding at opposite ends of the table, were held to be models of their profession. They treated one another with immense ceremony, so that a foreigner, unversed in the ways of English service after the grand manner, might well have refused to believe that they had lived side by side for five-and-twenty years in the same house.'
You might say they were like an old married couple – and this is how screenwriter Julian Fellowes has chosen to dramatise the phlegmatic, eyeball rolling relationship between spinster housekeeper Hughes and bachelor butler Carson in Downton Abbey. All that's left for them to share is a double bed.
So what about sex? We tend to think of these senior servants as asexual beings; self-controlled, self-important, grey haired and tight-lipped. But this is not what I found in my research. Rather, they were in their prime, commonly aged between 25 and 40.
Sex appears to have been very much a part of life below stairs, sternly forbidden as it was. Perhaps it's not surprising when you consider that housekeeper and butler were left to their own devices for long chunks of the year, while their aristocratic families 'did' the London season, or the shooting season in Scotland, or visited one of their other residences. Housekeeper and butler were master and mistress in absentia and, by all accounts, prone to taking liberties.
The Duke and Duchess of Sutherland had six houses, and so it was that their housekeeper Mrs Doar, of Trentham Hall, Staffordshire, found time to get pregnant in 1832. Their chief agent's reaction is intriguing: Mrs Doar would have to go, wrote James Loch. If not 'it would be a bad example for the other Upper Servants, and it would be Castle Howard over again in its worst times.'
What sexual liberties had those Georgian upper servants been taking at Castle Howard, the Yorkshire seat of the Duke of Sutherland's nephew George Howard, 6th Earl of Carlisle? By the High Victorian 1880s the Countess of Carlisle was neurotic about her servants' morality. She would make a head housemaid report back that the under-maids were regularly washing their monthly napkins because it 'proved they were not having a baby'.
In one country house the drying room was the venue for secret dances, according to Jessica Gerard, who trawled through the archives for her book Country House Life. At another, the laundry was described by one servant as 'nothing but a brothel'. Apparently both upper and lower servants used the more remote and private laundry as a convenient, neutral venue for assignations.
Pregnancies were common. Of all the babies accepted by London's Foundling Hospital between 1821 and 1830, two thirds came from servants. Of these, a disproportionate third are in the higher ranks of service – housekeepers, cooks, governesses, nurses and ladies' maids. I found one terribly sad story of a relationship between a cook-housekeeper and butler that put flesh on these statistics.
Sarah Drake 'formed an attachment' to the butler, a Frenchman called Louis, while working at a country house in Oxfordshire. She fell pregnant and so, of course, had to leave her job. When the baby was six weeks old she put him 'at nurse' with a policeman's wife in Peckham, London, for six shillings a week. Drake needed to return swiftly to work to stay alive; now she had her baby's keep to fund, too. As an unmarried woman in 1849, she didn't dare tell her family of her predicament. The story ends badly, with a court case for infanticide. This was not uncommon for servants who bore illegitimate children.
But Downton's Mrs Hughes is safe; her baby-bearing years are long past. For those thousands of career servants who sacrificed their breeding years, the dream that kept many going was of one day running an inn or a small hotel. Most famously, butler William Claridge met his wife Marianne in service, the two saving enough money to set up a respectable boarding house at 49 Brook Street, London W1. By 1884 they'd bought up the five neighbouring houses, already knocked into a hotel. It has remained 'Claridge's' ever since.
Another dream was to milk one's years of expertise and move sideways into manual writing. How the Victorians loved their conduct manuals! The tome of the 19th-century – The Complete Servant – was written by retired butler and housekeeper Samuel and Sarah Adams in 1825.
Packed full of sage information, from wage charts to how to feed an invalid, it can also be read as their opportunity to unleash all the pent up frustrations and irritations of half a century in service. If they were too starchy and terrified to act on any sexual urges while in office, the Adamses were not going to let future generations succumb either.
'Avoid as much as possible being alone with the other sex, as the greatest mischiefs happen from small circumstances,' they write, forefingers wagging. 'A reserved modesty is the best safeguard of virtue.'
Perhaps too late for full-blooded passion, but compatible as business partners, Samuel and Sarah made a pragmatic choice in setting up home together. There would be no children; The Complete Servant was the fruit of their union.
And it was a winner. They were the celebrity servant couple of their day. But, we might ask today, at what emotional cost?