I wanted to write a backstory for Charles Carson and Elsie Hughes, explain how they became the people they are now. What made them butler and housekeeper. Some parts might not correspond with canon at all. But read for yourself and decide for yourself if you like my headcanon about these two :)
A/N: the characters are not mine. They belong to Julian Fellowes, ITV, Masterpiece. And I hope they will return in full glory in September and not disappoint us.
The first time he turns the key inside the lock of the massive front door he does not feel proud or important. It is a new responsibility that weighs heavily on his shoulders. He is in charge of the house now. He has to make sure that every door, every window is locked and secured before he goes to sleep. They all rely on him, the old housekeeper, the young footmen, the many young male servants he has to supervise now, Lord Grantham, the Dowager Countess. Everyone . The lock clicks once, twice, a third time. He removes the large iron key, checks whether the door is securely locked or if he has missed something. A bolt he is not aware of maybe. But it does not move an inch. He takes the small paraffin lamp from the table where he had put it before and carefully walks across the impressive entrance hall of Downton Abbey, silently, almost on tiptoes. He does not want to wake someone although he probably is the only one of the servants still awake. Another change to his daily routine he has to get used to now as fast as possible. Being the last one. Together with the housekeeper.
He opens the door that leads down to the kitchen, the servant's hall and to his new room. The old butler's pantry. There aren't many personal things that make it his room yet. Not a single picture decorates the walls. Only dusty shelves with too many useless things stacked on it. He has not found the time yet to rearrange things, sort through the old books Mr. Wilkinson has left him. He only has had a look at the accounts, the wine ledger, some invoices so far to get familiar with them, learn how to read them.
When he lights another small lamp to illuminate the dark pantry, shadows appear in every corner, making the room darker instead of brighter. He feels lost suddenly, overburdened. He cannot do this job, he was never meant to do it. He, who has once fled from all of this, tried to forget his origin, the strict rules, the life in service his mother was used to, growing up in a house like this without a father but with a loving mother. He, who has lived on the streets, slept in shabby rooms in some run down guesthouses during the day while at night the stage was where he felt alive for the first time in his life. There was once no responsibility at all in his life, only for himself. Now there is too much.
The large key lies heavily in his hand and he stares at it, tries to understand its meaning and what it does to him. It ties him to this house, ultimately. There is no way back. Now he has obey to the rules that have been set centuries ago. He cannot change them, maybe alter them a bit. Most of all, he cannot run away from them again, has to accept them. A sigh escapes him when he puts the key in the top drawer of the old desk. He will have to get used to it.
The months pass by too fast for his liking. He has hardly time to adjust to his new role and the housekeeper has to remind him of too many things he tends to forget. Mrs. Barnes is patient with him, too patient. He often sees how she rolls her eyes when she thinks he does not notice. It is her way of criticising him and he wishes she would tell him what is bothering her instead of keeping everything to herself. She calls him good boy when she wants him to do something for her or when he has done something correctly. But he is no longer a boy. He is close to 40. Still he does not feel like it. He is impatient, cannot concentrate sometimes, is afraid to make decisions. Still slowly he adjusts to his new routines. The daily rounds become more familiar, locking the front door is not special anymore and he gets used to the weight of the large key in his hands, to the sound the lock makes when he shuts the door. But he keeps walking down the empty floors at night without making a sound. He does not want to be noticed.
His regular tasks still include serving dinner to the family upstairs, but no longer actively. He blends in. Stays in the background, disappears behind the footmen. Now he is giving them their orders, training them, telling them what to do. Sometimes he pours the wine that he has selected earlier. And here too, he tries to stay in the background. Mrs. Barnes watches him sometimes, how he stands next to the china closet, observing the dinner, making sure everything the young boys do is perfect. She thinks he does not take notice of her but he knows that she studies his every move, because they often talk about it later. Not directly though. She only hints at things and he hates that.
"You run the house now Charles."
This means he should not try to hide behind his footmen, should not pretend to be invisible. But he can't help it.
The only thing he really likes about his new responsibility is the perfection he can ensure. After he returned from the real life it was the only thing that kept him going. It made him forget his past because it was so different to the chaos he had lived in for a few years. He folds the napkins perfectly, there is never a speck of dust anywhere that he overlooks, his livery is always spotless. In Mr. Wilkinson's eyes he is the perfect footman. The old butler did not know that Charles Carson needed the perfectionism to stay focused, to avoid falling into old habits again. Or, in the worst case, run away a second time.
It is like an old habit he cannot let go of and that slowly turns into an implicitness he no longer notices. Oddly enough he does not mind at all.
There are a lot of rules at Downton Abbey. So many different ones that he never knew whether what he did as a young footman was right or wrong at the beginning. He learned them quickly to assimilate, to no longer stick out as the young stranger. Soon the rules define his new life and he no longer gives them a second thought at all. They are there; they help him to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, black from white. The young boys that do not obey the rules leave the house so fast that he sometimes only sees them for a few days without ever getting to know their names. They are not eager to stay in service obviously, not determined to live a good life. He was once like them: a young fool who thought that he was able to decide on his own what kind of life he wants to have.
The most important rule of the house is: no suitors. It applies for the young men and the young women. Sometimes the other footmen flirt with the housemaids, ask them out for a walk into the village or to the fair. He never does that. There is a rule that says: when you are attracted to a girl, don't show it or they will dismiss you. And although he is the only one that knows how to survive out there on his own, he does not want to risk it a second time. So he takes this particular rule very seriously.
Now that he is butler at Downton Abbey he has to make sure that everyone else he has under his jurisdiction takes the old and the new rules he has set up as seriously as he once did and still does. That is the hardest part of his new position: gaining respect, not showing anyone how uncertain he really is. His outward appearance is what matters now not necessarily how he executes his daily work. He is the new role model for the younger male servants and they look up to him. Mistakes will cost him the hardly earned respect. So he tries to make none, pushes every thought away that might risk a faux pas, does not allow his mind to wander back to his old life or doubt his ability to fulfil this new job the way the others expect it from him. Only at night is he able ease the tension sometimes that determines his day. Alone in his room he tries to forget the responsibility, pretends that he is still that young footman.
One day, a week before the large garden party, Mrs. Barnes informs him that she has placed an advertisement in the York Observer. They are looking for a new head housemaid and he will make the final decision as soon as they have seen the young women who are supposed to apply for the open position. He is nervous. Never before has he made such a huge decision that affected the household in such a way. Selecting a new girl, or better a young woman, for this position is a new responsibility he is not sure he can handle.
Several nights he is unable to sleep, contemplating over and over again how to make a final decision, how to select the right girl. It's foolish. He should have more confidence. Mrs. Barnes has stopped correcting his mistakes a while ago. She seldom comments on what he has done during the day during their evening talks. Maybe he is finally becoming this butler, the respected head of the household.
They get plenty of applications for the open position. Most of the young women are from the local villages that surround Downton Abbey. They are between their mid-twenties and mid-thirties. And all of them have the required experience. Yet some are only housemaids that never had to lead a group of other housemaids before. Mrs. Barnes sorts them out, he agrees. He does not want the new member of staff to experience the same doubts he had been through a few months before.
One application catches his eye immediately. She is not from Yorkshire, not even from England. Her last employment was at some large manor in Northumberland close to the Scottish border. Miss Elizabeth Hughes, a Scot.
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