Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Upstairs Downstairs -Then and Now



Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh in the new Upstairs Downstairs. I watched the first episode of the new Masterpiece Theatre Upstairs Downstairs Sunday night and it was a very fine thing.

And it takes place in the 1930's so the set designers and dress designers had a spree. (I am renovating a bathroom and I just drooled over a bit of deco bathroom.) And it is set this time in the same era as the King's Speech. And it feels a lot like Gosford Park. And the format is perfect for showing how the BIG PICTURE, the political, impacts on the SMALL PICTURE, the personal, my main aim with Flo in the City.

I liked this new Upstairs Downstairs so much I immediately went on Amazon and purchased the original, its been so long since I saw it. My husband surprised me. He doesn't know his Brideshead from his I Claudius (He's more a Shogun kind of guy) but he walked into the room when the TV had a head shot of Jean Marsh and said, "She was in the original." His mom watched Upstairs Downstairs.

Anyway, I might have missed out on all this fun except for an article in Salon.com. Someone was lamenting the American fascination with the class system. "Haven't we got past this yet?" she asked. ( I stopped reading her article because I quickly went to the PBS site to see when the miniseries was playing.)

But I'll answer her anyway: No. You are deluded if you think there is no class system in America. Maybe we don't have accents, but... And statistics reveal that here in NA we're getting pretty close to Edwardian style feudalism, with a tiny proportion of people holding most of the wealth. (Our Prime Minister Stephen Harper is building prisons instead of poor houses for the hoi poloi, but...there you go.)

(Now, in my previous blog, I remarked upon how I live a similar lifestyle to people in West London, despite my home being worth much much much much less. That is, I am of the same class, essentially. My interests, education, even lifestyle. But there have always been anomalies in the class system.)

Of course, all this business about the servant class fits in beautifully with Flo in the City. In 1910, as I've written they had 'a servant problem.' And when Flora Nicholson attended Macdonald Teachers' College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue in 1911, many of her fellow female students were studying domestic science. It was an institution originally set up to train men as farmers and women as domestics.

I am reading The Thirties: An Intimate History on my Kindle, which is another reason I am so pleased to have discovered Upstairs Downstairs.

I am only 13 percent into the book (says my digital slate) but it is clear that in the UK in the 30's, with rampant unemployement, the Powers that Be thought that unemployed women (from textile factories in the north, etc.) should be trained as domestics. This first episode of Upstairs Downstairs was about the difficulty of finding good help in the 1930's in England.

I'm not sure this happened in Canada during the Depression.

My mother's French Canadian family, in the 30s in Montreal was well off, but they didn't have maids although my grandmother often took in 'troubled girls' the nuns couldn't handle...

My anglo father in law, however, had a cook and a maid and they were upper middle class, I'd say. They lived on Tupper near the Montreal Forum and later on Chesterfield in Westmount. A maiden aunt, Emily, was his nanny of sorts. (She was not poor, she left 50 thousand at her death.)

I don't know who these maids were, but I do know that after the war Caribbean women were brought in to work as domestics, even if they had professional credentials. This was the same in England. The book Small Island is about just that.

And today wealthier people hire Philippino women to take care of their children and our elderly. So to say there is nothing for us to learn from the past, how ridiculous!!