Below Stairs

The employers always claimed that the training they gave you stood you in good stead when you left and married and had a family of your own. When I left domestic service I took with me the knowledge of how to cook an elaborate seven-course dinner and an enormous inferiority complex. I can’t say that I found those an asset to my married life.

Margaret Powell went into domestic service at fifteen as a lowly kitchen maid in 1920’s England. Three years later she had worked her way up to being a cook. This brutally honest memoir details her years working at a wide-range of homes. Originally published in the 1950’s, this book has been reissued with the tag line “The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.” The cover goes on to have two other quotes mentioning Downton Abbey (one by creator Julian Fellowes). Clearly, someone is trying to capitalize on the popularity of the BBC miniseries.

As one of the many Downton Abbey fans, I think I was hoping for a book that would be similar in feel; one that would invoke nostalgia for a world long-gone. If you are looking for that, you will be disappointed. First of all, Powell worked in the 1920’s in much smaller households than the one depicted in Downton Abbey. This might seem a small detail but part of what is being explored in Downton Abbey is how the social changes and major events of the beginning of the twentieth century are changing the old class structure. Powell was in service after World War I, which is not a small difference historically.

Secondly,Powell is never sentimental. The writing style is sometimes too dry and at times I wished for more details or insight into something she might mention offhand. Powell’s voice is loud and clear, at times I didn’t like her but she’s unapologetic about her views. She is matter of fact about a world where she had to quit school to work at 13 despite being bright enough to win a scholarship but also not shy about questioning the economic inequalities she is faced with every day. Readers expecting a demure old-fashioned girl’s voice may be offended by her stories of raunchy jokes shared among kitchen staff and her very direct quest for a husband. She is also not particularly kind to her employers. Of the many that she mentions there are only two who she remembers at all fondly. Her perspective is not particularly nuanced. I don’t blame her for this, her life was difficult and often bleak. Yet, I think this is why something like Downton Abbey is more enjoyable. Yes, the Grantham daughters are spoiled and lead charmed lives. However, we also see the difficulties of being a woman of any class at that time in history when your choices were extremely limited and so much depended on attracting and “catching” the right husband. Powell is also working among a different class of people, the wealthy but not the same level of wealthy as that of Downton Abbey or its predecessor Upstairs, Downstairs. Her experience is more gritty and probably more representative of those in service (there are a lot more wealthy families than there are the super wealthy) but it also may have colored how she was treated and may not be representative of life amongst the servants in the grandest homes.

Even though this book wasn’t the lovely gilt-edged pleasure I expected, in the end I really appreciated Powell’s voice. It’s not a voice heard often in history books and for that reason it’s even more valuable to hear. Powell is also quite funny, with a somewhat deadpan sense of humor, and quite intelligent. She frequently mentions her love of reading and in the last chapter she tells how she decided to return to her studies late in life (after realizing that she has “nothing in common to talk about except the weather” with her three boys who are preparing for university). At the time of writing the book she was going back to school and at age 58 had passed her O levels and was taking the A levels. Before writing this post, I looked up Powell, only to find that she was able to take the success of this first book and turn it into several other books (two more memoirs and some novels) and into work on several TV shows. One of the shows, Beryl’s Lot, about a milkmaid’s wife with three sons who went back to school late in life to study philosophy was based on her own life. She died in 1984, fairly well-off. It strikes me as interesting that her book is very much about the unfairness of the class and economic system but that she was able in the end to use her natural talents to break out of that system.

I’ll end with one more quote in Powell’s unique voice, from when she was married and taking on temporary jobs to help pay the bills while her husband was away in WWII. This quote gives a great sense of who Powell is:

“You must treat things better, Margaret,” [Mrs. Schwab] said. “Don’t you love good objects?” “No, I don’t, Mrs. Schwab,” I said. “To me they’re just material things; I have an affinity with G.K. Chesterton who wrote about the malignity of inanimate objects,” I said, ” and I think they are malign because they take up so much of my time, dusting, polishing, and cleaning them. Look at that vase, “I said, ” that you say is worth a hundred pounds, if that was to drop on the floor and break it would just be three or four worthless bits of china.”

There are any number of glowing reviews around the web in response to this re-release. For a more critical (but still postitive) view, this review at the Guardian offers an interesting perspective. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in history or who enjoys period dramas like Downton Abbey. I think it’s too much to say (like the quote on the front cover) that if you love Downton Abbey you will love this book, but I think it will give you a different perspective and is worth the read even if you haven’t been sucked into the world of the Granthams.

5 thoughts on “Below Stairs

  1. Alice,
    I saw a comment you made about Susan Cooper’s books on Amy’s blog, and I wondered what age you would recommend those for?. I have a 10 year old son. Too young? The library has them listed for teen fiction, so I never am sure if that is because of content or because of reading level. Thanks for your thoughts! You can email me at zilkie4@yahoo.com if that is easier, or I will try to check back to your blog and see your response!

    • Julie-
      I read them in 4th or 5th grade. I think they are perfect for a 10 yr old. I can’t imagine them as teen fiction myself. There are a few scary things but they are pretty tame compared to something like Harry Potter…more along the lines of Narnia (although they are not Christian). I’m not a great judge of reading level but I think they would be fine for most 10 yr olds. Hope he enjoys!

  2. Pingback: On My Nightstand « Supratentorial

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