Ruth and I are binge watching Downton Abbey at the moment – and, yes, Maggie Smith’s Dowager is even more fun the second time around. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it draws much of its drama from the slow collapse of the class system at the end of Edwardian Britain. This isn’t too far back in our history – many people grew up hearing stories of that time from their parents or grandparents – but it’s still a little hard to imagine a world in which your entire life was shaped by the strata of society you were born into.
In fact, it’s so hard to imagine that writers of historical fiction often get it wrong. I’ve run into too many historical novels in which the main characters ran around the world without a care, when in real life they would have needed a retinue of servants to keep up their lifestyles. I’ve seen other characters who had servants but treated them with a familiarity that’s commonplace today but unheard of in centuries past. Or characters who were servants but chafed against the restrictions of their station in life in a way earlier generations couldn’t imagine.
Jo Baker’s Longbourne, which tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants, opens with Sarah, a maid, doing the week’s laundry. As she struggles with frigid water from the pump, slippery floors, and lye soap that eats into her hands, she is acutely aware of the everyday smells and hardships that an ordinary servant of the day would have grown up with and taken for granted. And when she thinks that “really no one should have to deal with another person’s dirty linen,” she is clearly seeing her world from the point of view of someone who owns a washing machine. Did she really expect the quality to scrub their own underwear?
So make sure your historical characters are living in the history that actually happened. Lower class people in earlier ages doubtless resented their masters when those masters were cruel – there were peasants’ rebellions from time to time. But it never would have occurred to them to question the hierarchical system that had maids doing the dirty work for the aristocracy. For one thing, class distinctions were something you could see – and smell. As Sarah knew, it was a lot of work to boil water to wash clothes, so the lower classes didn’t change as often as we do today. Even as late as the nineteenth century, shirts had detachable collars and cuffs, so you could swap out the parts most likely to get dirty and wear the shirt another day – or several.
Bathing became more accepted over time – it was nearly nonexistent between Rome and the Renaissance – but required nearly as much work as laundry, so it was a luxury that the lower classes rarely experienced. Soap was harsh and expensive, shampoo and toothpaste largely unheard of, and the substitutes for toilet paper don’t bear thinking about. Not to put too fine a point on it, the peasants were revolting. [Read more…]