11 Literary Servants Tell Their Own Stories

The glamorous gowns and sparkling jewels might be the upstairs, but as anyone who's seen "Downton Abbey" can attest, the downstairs help has double the share of intrigue and scandal--they know all the secrets of the house, and have a few of their own as well. These eleven books go beyond the drawing room and bring a welcome freshness to stuffy aristocratic affairs. These are the servants' stories.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
In 1960s Mississippi, three women from very different walks of life risk everything to come together to tell the stories of "the help"--the black maids who work for white families. Told through alternating voices, it is a powerful tale of desperation, fortitude, and, above all, tremendous hope.

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
On a thriving Virginia plantation, indentured Irish servant Lavinia is adopted by Belle, the master's illegitimate daughter. When Lavinia violates the delicate order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the best and worst of everyone tied to the estate. Can her unlikely family endure through it all?

Longbourn by Jo Baker
The spotlight shifts downstairs in this vivid reimagining of a Jane Austen classic. Starring a mysterious new footman, an orphaned housemaid, and a handsome valet, this novel proves that life beyond the ballroom is filled with just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue as it is upstairs.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
In this quietly dazzling ode to postwar England on the brink of momentous change, a consummate English butler must come to terms with the growing obsolescence of his insular world. What follows is a profound reflection on dignity and what it means to live a complete life.

Read the review here


Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s is brought to life through the voices of five unforgettable characters. Among them is Ugwu, a houseboy who comes to his master a naive child and ends the novel a wary ex-soldier. As war drags on and the differences between Ugwu and the once-privileged family he serves shrink, their shared, raw humanity is all that remains.

Ruth's Journey by Donald McCaig
One of literature's greatest supporting characters takes center stage in this prequel to Gone with the Wind. From her miraculous survival as an infant to the outbreak of the Civil War, Ruth--better known as Mammy--faces hardship with pride and ferocious love for those closest to her. You'll never read Margaret Mitchell's enduring classic the same way again.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring has remained a beautiful enigma for centuries. In her atmospheric novel, Tracy Chevalier imagines the painting's subject to be a young girl hired by the Vermeer household, whose rise from maid to assistant to model brings with it a world of jealousy, intimacy, and secrets.

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
Set in interwar Britain, this gorgeous debut novel is the story of a decades-old suicide at an aristocratic manor home, relived through the eyes of the ninety-eight-year-old former housemaid. In a classic case of the servant knowing all, her memories of that long-ago night are the key to shocking secrets and heartbreaking truths.

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell
In this memoir that inspired the BBC hits "Downton Abbey" and "Upstairs Downstairs," one woman tells the story of her time spent in domestic service. With humor and a sharp eye for the prejudices of her situation, she gives readers a fascinating glimpse into the "downstairs" of a long-gone world.

The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse
This series of artfully interwoven tales chronicles a community of Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles who work as cleaners, gardeners, and day laborers as they chase the American dream. Eye-opening and deeply human, it illuminates an often hidden segment of American life.

The House Girl by Tara Conklin
A tenacious junior lawyer assigned to a reparations case discovers that a young slave girl may actually be the true artist of the famous works of her owner. Moving between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, this unforgettable novel is a suspenseful and heartbreaking journey that showcases the courage and determination of two women from very different times.

More Recommendations from Off the Shelf: