The first thing you'll notice about the book is that it is gorgeous to look at. It is packed with drawings, paintings, and photos. It's organized by time of day, and in keeping with its focus on describing all the work that happens to keep a country estate running, the first time of day mentioned is Before Dawn.
Each chapter includes a description of what the rich were doing, and what the servants were doing, and a profile of a famous personage of the time. In general, there are more details regarding the activities of the servants than those of the wealthy. This book gives a very detailed picture of what a day on an estate would be like.
As I understand it, the Edwardian Era is generally considered to have ended in 1910 with the death of King Edward VII, but may be considered to extend as far as the end of World War I. Because the book deals with both the heyday of the gentry's country estate lifestyle and with its demise, most of Upstairs focuses on the latter part of the era, and even the impact of WWI and WWII. Despite its focus on a later time period, I think that this book would be of interest to fans of Regency and Victorian romance, since many of the basic structures of the day and the household in the Edwardian Era would have been similar to those of the Regency and Victorian Eras.
Of course, the book's target audience is fans of Downton Abbey, who will love it.
I try to resist the impulse to make too many comparisons to other books I've reviewed, but I must say that if you were intrigued by To Marry an English Lord, then this book makes a perfect companion. While To Marry was about the rich, with just a little about servants, this book takes the opposite approach. I would caution you that To Marry takes an awful lot of the romance out of the era despite its descriptions of pretty people and their pretty things, and Upstairs pretty much demolishes any romance that might remain.
It took an awful lot of toil to make those lovely parties possible, and some of it was just gross:
The appetite for pheasant was phenomenal, and cookery books of the time reveal numerous ways of cooking it, like casseroled in port or stuffed with foie gras. Before cooking, the meat was hung in a larder for several days – even weeks – before cooking, until the meat would be considered putrid by modern tastes. Edwardian cooks believed that the decomposition added to the flavor of the meat and boiled the maggots off into the stock during the cooking process.
It's also difficult to picture peacefully sipping tea in one's drawing room with one's suitor when you know this is the sort of thing making your grandeur possible:
I have been so driven at work since the fires begun I have hardly had any time for anything myself. I am up at half past five or six every morning and I do not go to bed till nearly twelve at night and I feel so tired sometimes I am obliged to have a good cry.
– Kitchen Maid Harriet Brown, 1870
And yet domestic servants were often far better off than many. At that time in England, 40% of the population lived below the poverty line.
In my Period Romance fantasies, regardless of the time period, everyone is happy. The kitchen maid is well rested, well fed, and well paid, and looks forward to the day when she'll retire to raise a family with the equally well-fed, well-paid, well-rested hall boy, or possibly an Earl. Meanwhile, while we may treasure our historical fantasies, it's a good thing to have some idea of the realities of the times. Certainly, at the risk of sounding preachy, it seems that a time period of great social and economic imbalance, and rapid social, economic, and political change, might have some lessons to impart to our own situation.
Deeper thoughts aside, the book is interesting and attractive and informative, and I highly recommend it to fans of English historical fiction.