Life at № 42 by E.M. Coutinho
For comparison’s sake I have to start with the grand staircase. That’s because I think it’s the most shocking example of inequality/aristocratic thinking. As incredible as it may seem to us today, not so long ago there was a world in which house-staff was so less than the people who employed them, having them circulating through the grand parts of the house was simply unthinkable.
Well hidden behind panelled doors with locks only on the family side is the other staircase.
Going up the service stairs, you get to the staff living room. It’s not big. The living, toilette area and five bedrooms all come to a total of 150m2 (1614 sq. feet.) Keep in mind this space was shared by 10 people.
I don’t know what sort of furniture they had to sit on, but I’m guessing just wooden chairs and maybe a table. The toilette area is in the corner, to the right of where I’m standing when I took the picture. It’s open to the room! I can see hooks which means it was curtained off, at least.
Happy new year is written in chalk on the cupboard above. Probably a play on words as bonne also means maid + the name Anne. There were also some paper decorations in the form of a string of cutout flowers. Kind of touching. Notice there’s no loo, only a bidet. To go the staff loo, they have to go all the way down the stairs and then cross the basement. The bedrooms aren’t too bad.
All of the bedrooms have a storage area in the form of a crawl space. Another shocking thing is that although there are two little radiators in the living area, there are none in any of the bedrooms. Why do poor people need heating? Freezing temperatures are character building! Now back down we go to the basement. The service stairs land you smack in the centre of a dark workshop area. After your eyes adjust you see daylight coming from your left. Going through the corridor, you get to the one and only staff loo/shower. The floor is just plain concrete. This little room must have been perpetually wet all over.
Also on this level is the staff kitchen. It’s not so bad. It’s got a window and its own door with steps that lead up into the garden. This served a variety of purposes. The gardener/chauffeur etc. could come in and out of the house without walking through the family areas. They could also get food and supplies in and out without disturbing the family.
There are some other interesting things… All the doors in the staff areas have finger plates to stop their dirty hands damaging the paintwork (didn’t quite work.)
And they’re not supposed to leave open any doors that have access to the family parts of the house. This is made abundantly clear by not entirely friendly little signs on every single door that can access the family sections. The signs also happen to grace their kitchen and loo.
I wouldn’t have liked to have been born on the wrong side of the doors. I get a strong sense of deep condescension. Interestingly enough, I didn’t grasp such things as a child having been a boy who was born on the right side of the doors.
It also feels very permanent, devoid of hope. In those days once someone got a job working in this sort of house, that was it. They’d spend the rest of their lives quickly closing the doors behind them as to not upset anyone, scurrying from the gates to the service kitchen as to not be seen. Probably looking out of their windows and into the grand surrounding houses wondering what it’s like not to have to share a loo with nine other people.