Before there was “Downton Abbey”, before there was “Upstairs Downstairs”, there was the blunt and humorous book that inspired both of these series, Margaret Powell’s bestselling memoir “Below Stairs”. At the age of fifteen, Powell began working as a kitchen maid in the great houses of England, during the 1920’s. Though there weren’t many opportunities for the lower classes in Powell’s time, her determination and ambition endured.
Powell was poor before she went to work as a lowly kitchen maid, but she left behind a childhood that was in many ways blissful and full of folly, on the beaches of Hove, for a life of demanding hard work; in an atmosphere where those of her station were often mistreated and had few rights.
In “Below Stairs”, the reader gains insight about the daily existence of those who served in great houses of England during this period. It’s difficult for most to imagine the kind of living and working conditions described in this book. Powell’s day began at 5:30 in the morning. She blackened the stove, scrubbed vegetables, polished silver, beat rugs, and carried out many other chores. Her work wasn’t finished until after dark. Following long and grueling hours of labor, she retired to a cold, damp, bare room to sleep.
Servants from the early twentieth century and before are often depicted in literature and films as being markedly docile and submissive; content to serve their “betters”, even when they are treated badly in the process. However, Powell comes across as feisty and strong willed. In reflecting on this part of her life, she doesn’t hesitate to express anger and resentment towards those who mistreated her. She also dishes up plenty of gossip and exposes scandalous treatment of other servants, including behavior which would now be termed sexual harassment. One particularly disturbing story involves an under-parlormaid who is fired after being impregnated by her employer’s nephew.
One of the most intriguing things about books that center on servants who are retained by fabulously wealthy families is the contrast between the meager lives of the servants, set against the backdrop of the glittering, extravagant, almost fairytale world inhabited by their employers. The idea of being constantly exposed to the “good life”, all the while knowing it’s out of reach, has always been interesting to readers; as is the concept of the underdog striving to succeed. We see Margaret Powell strive to make a better life for herself and be rewarded for her efforts when she works her way up to the position of main cook, before eventually getting married.
Originally published in 1968, there is a new edition of “Below Stairs” with the title “Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ and ‘Downton Abbey’”.
Some information provided by Goodreads and Amazon.