I recently watched the first season of the acclaimed British/American television series Downton Abbey and have become mildly obsessed with it. While it is an extremely engrossing period piece, I think the reason I liked it so much was that it brought my visit last year to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina alive. Although Downton Abbey is fictionalized Hollywood drama and Biltmore, actual history, both homes were occupied by aristocratic families who employed an unimaginable number of servants to cater to and look after their every whim. (Downton Abbey begins in 1912, shortly after the sinking of the Titanic.)
Downton Abbey is filmed at Highclere Castle, a 1,000 acre country house located in the English county of Hampshire that was constructed in the mid-19th century in Jacobethan style. Due to the show’s immense popularity, Highclere has attracted droves of visitors since the show premiered. The Biltmore Estate was built at the height of the Gilded Age by George Washington Vanderbilt II and construction on the 250 room mansion was finished in 1895. Vanderbilt originally owned 125,000 acres but upon his death, his widow sold 85,000 acres to the federal government per his wishes that the land remain unaltered (It eventually became the core of the Pisgah National Forest.)
I feel that I enjoyed Downton Abbey as much as I did (most likely a feeling shared by other viewers) because it showed more than a glimpse into the lives of the servants. Not only were you learning about the lives of the home’s wealthy owners, you were also learning about the lives of the men and women who worked from dawn until dusk, making opulent palaces run as smoothly as they did, look as incredible as they did, while cooking elaborate meals multiple times a day without any modern innovations.
As a cooking fiend, I found the scenes of Downton Abbey that took place in the kitchen to be fascinating. Just as in the series, the kitchen at Biltmore was not an incredibly large space considering that 10 course meals for more than 20 people were often prepared in it. When I toured Biltmore, there was no such thing as a dining room; there was however, a breakfast room, a luncheon room, and of course, the formal dining room. In Downton and I assume at Biltmore, all the servants had their clearly designated roles and stations. The cook, being the cook, would never venture anywhere in the house except the kitchen unless she was requested. Daisy, a servant at Downton who helps in the kitchen goes into a panic when the cook tells her she needs to take a sauce upstairs to the dining room since when the family is present the dining room is not an area where she is supposed to be. (She begs one of the maids who does assist in serving meals to take it up for her.) From a historical standpoint, I find it interesting that obesity wasn’t an issue during these decadent times, considering how many large and rich meals families like the Vanderbilt’s and the fictional Crawley’s ate and also that exercise was not the popular hobby it is today, especially for aristocratic women in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.
Biltmore was the first place I had ever seen the “servant bells” (also a prevalent feature on the show). In each of the family’s bedrooms and in the principal rooms of the house, there was a bell that a family member could ring. It was wired to sound in the servants’ area where they would often congregate when not tasked with anything. It was one way in which a family member’s request could be responded to immediately. The first episode of Downton Abbey begins with the servants starting their day, waiting in the kitchen until the respective bells are rung, alerting them that the family has awoken and requries assistance with dressing and tea trays to be brought.
As would be the case with any human beings at any point in history at any location, there is always discourse and resentment among the servants at Downton. In one episode, the servant who is the maid to the Countess of Grantham is caught gossiping by her employer, who proceeds to scold her and say that they cannot be friends if this is how she behaves. Once the countess has left the kitchen, the servant is indignant not only for being reprimanded in the servants’ quarters that are supposed to be theirs, but also for the countess implying that a servant and the wife of an earl could ever be friends. When I heard that line, I wondered if Edith Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, wife of Biltmore’s founder George Washington Vanderbilt II, ever had felt the same about her servants. From what I’ve read, the Vanderbilts were decent and fair people to work for, employers who greatly cared about the well-being of their household staff. The Countess of Grantham, along with her husband, the Earl, are presented in much the same way, yet the underlying fact remains (the point of the cheeky servant), that the employers were rich aristocrats and the servants were their employees who only knew of such fine things by virtue of working for them.
I have toured my share of historical properties ranging from palaces in South Korea to France’s Versailles and Spain’s Alhambra. While those are all architectural wonders and a delight for the eyes with their exquisite detail and beauty, they were from a time so long ago that no one today could imagine. However, places like Biltmore or Highclere Castle, are not hundreds of years old, but rather from a recent enough time that their grandeur and the lifestyle of their inhabitants is mind boggling to the modern world. Watching an episode of Downton Abbey or visiting the Biltmore Estate will affirm as such. If you have never done either, I highly recommend you do.