Below Stairs

Read:  2016

Author:  Margaret Powell

Published:  1968

Genre:  Autobiography / Memoir

Pages:  212 (hardcover)

Selected By:  Elle Tea

Elle’s Score:  Scoring Great Book

“Margaret Powell’s classic memoir of her time in service is the remarkable true story of an indomitable woman who, though she served in the great houses of England, never stopped aiming high.  Powell first arrived at the servants’ entrance of one of those great houses in the 1920s.  As a kitchen maid, the lowest of the low, she entered an entirely new world; one of stoves to be blacked, vegetables to be scrubbed, mistresses to be appeased, and bootlaces to be ironed.  Work started at 5.30 AM and went on until after dark.  It was a far cry from her childhood on the beaches of Hove, where money and food were scarce, but warmth and laughter never were.  Yet from the gentleman with a penchant for stroking the housemaids’ curlers, to raucous tea-dances with errand boys, to the heartbreaking story of Agnes the pregnant under-parlormaid, fired for being seduced by her mistress’s nephew, Margaret’s tales of her time in service is a fascinating ‘downstairs’ portrait of the glittering, long-gone worlds behind the closed doors of Downton Abbey and 165 Eaton Place.” – adapted from the Goodreads summary.

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Elle Tea’s Review

I’m a fan of Upstairs, Downstairs, The Duchess of Duke Street, and Downton Abbey, not to mention a history buff, so this memoir really was my cup o’ tea.  In fact, this book served as inspiration for Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins (whose own mothers were in service) when they were creating the former, and it also inspired Julian Fellowes during the creation of the latterthe newer reprints of Below Stairs even include a blurb saying as much on the cover.  For those of you with an aversion to non-fiction, never fear – if you have even the slightest interest in this time period (late 19th through early 20th centuries), Margaret Powell’s book might still be the perfect way to supplement the wait between Downton episodes!

It’s a remarkably quick read, for starters, weighing in at only a couple of hundred pages.  And it’s written in a way that is accessible to everyone – there are no citations or quotations here, no reference materials through which to wade, no family trees, no extensive knowledge of British politics, no talk of economics or currency… It’s written just as I imagined its author spoke – in fact, the whole book reads like one-half of a conversation, with a bit of deviation and meandering from main subjects to throw in a bit of wit or some extra details like backstories and outcomes that otherwise would not have much mattered.

“I remember saying to my mother, ‘Why do you have so many children?  Is it hard to have children?’  And she said, ‘Oh, no.  It’s as easy as falling off a log.’  You see, that was the only pleasure poor people could afford.  It cost nothing – at least at the time when you were actually making the children.  The fact that it would cost you something later on, well, the working-class people never looked ahead in those days.  They didn’t dare.  It was enough to live for the present.”

For die-hard armchair historians of the period, or even for those who’ve watched all of Downton Abbey and a bit of Gosford Park, it will come as no great shock that the author’s life was bereft of many of the comforts known to even those considered poor by today’s standards.  Margaret Powell (nee Langley) was the second child and eldest daughter of a family that included six other children, and her story begins with her upbringing, which can best be summed up as rich in laughter and poor in just about everything else.  After thirteen years of hunger, financial insecurity, and domestic uncertainty, she earned an academic scholarship that she was immediately forced to turn down as it would require her parents to continue to provide food and shelter for her until she was eighteen-years-old – a situation they were simply in no position to accept.  And thus began Margaret’s now-famous journey into the workforce – first at a hotel laundry, and then, two years later, in service as a kitchen maid for a wealthy family.

“Kitchen maid’s duties: rise at five-thirty (six o’clock on Sundays), come downstairs, clean the flues, light the fire, blacklead the grate (incidentally, when you blackleaded the grate you didn’t have nice tins of liquid polish, you had a hard old lump of blacklead, which before you went to bed at night you had to put in a saucer with water and leave soaking all night before it would assume any kind of paste to do the grate with.  I didn’t know this; and nobody bothered to tell me.  I tried to do it the next morning with the lump; I thought you had to rub it on the stove.  No one told me anything.  Why people should assume I knew, I don’t know), clean the steel fender and the fire-irons (that steel fender, without exaggerating, was all of four foot long, with a tremendous shovel, tongs, and poker all in steel, which all had to be done with emery paper), clean the brass on the front door, scrub the steps, clean the boots and shoes, and lay the servants’ breakfast.  And this all had to be done before eight o’clock.”

If you’re thinking the author sounds a tad bitter, well, you’re not wrong there – but why shouldn’t she be?  It is clear that she was an ambitious and intelligent young woman who plainly states that she wanted more than anything to be a teacher (she read Dickens and Chesterton for fun); however, she was forced to remain in her impoverished and servile situation based solely on the circumstances of her birth and gender, things over which she had absolutely no control but which determined just about everything in those days.  She was no hero – one of the things I most loved about this book was that the author was entirely average and, as such, she wasn’t going to be the voice for women’s rights or a herald for the rights of the working class; Margaret’s story was the story of hundreds of other women, women forced to play the game with the hands they were dealt, who didn’t truly have an opportunity to shine until two World Wars forced the entire country to redefine how it would successfully continue to run.  And, in the end, when she was ready (or, as she said, when she realized she could not carry on a sensible and interesting conversation with her university-educated sons), Margaret remedied her situation, finally passing her O-Levels at the age of 58 and her A-Levels by age 62.

“They knew that you breathed and you slept and you worked, but they didn’t know that you read.  Such a thing was beyond comprehension.  They thought that in your spare time you sat and gazed into space… You could almost see them reporting you to their friends.  ‘Margaret’s a good cook, but unfortunately she reads.  Books, you know.’ “

The author clearly also had cajones – great big ones.  Rather than just rolling around in a pile of self-pity, Margaret lets you know that, while her situation was never quite ideal, it was the best she could manage – and manage it she did.  Her mother had briefly been in domestic service herself, so Margaret was familiar early-on with the responsibilities and expectations of many of the positions for which she was qualified to apply; she hated to do needlework, so, rather than choosing to be an under-housemaid (where decorative and practical needlework would be a requirement) she opted for a lower position as a kitchen maid – all based on the fact that she’d cooked a bit while at home.  And when she grew tired enough of being the lowest gal on the totem pole, she bluffed her way towards a promotion to cook, maintaining that position with a combination of ingenuity, cleverness, and the ever-faithful Mrs. Beeton’s.

“To me they’re just material things; I have an affinity with G.K. Chesterton who wrote about the malignity of inanimate objects, and I think they are malign because they take up so much of my time, dusting, polishing, and cleaning them.”

There were also quite a few reminders of the little things we take advantage of every day that weren’t even thought of a mere one-hundred years ago – there were the obvious things, such as the convenience of refrigeration, and then the not-so-obvious, like how easy it is now to just wander over to the supermarket whenever you need anything, regardless of the season or one’s proximity to the ocean, a farm, or a dairy.  Not to mention that the author was writing about a time when class distinctions were set in stone before one was even born and social-welfare programs were nonexistent – the poor did what odd jobs they could when they could and relied heavily on the charity of those more fortunate.  And while today most people in England are able to raise their families in their own homes, this was not common a hundred years ago, when most of the population could not afford a whole domicile for their own particular use and instead rented rooms or, at times, even just floor space, so that three or four (or more!) families might all be within the same four walls, sharing washing and cooking space and only having sleeping spaces cordoned off for each individual family.

“I left with an enormous sense of inferiority and the ability to cook a seven-course dinner.” 

So, to sum it all up, I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the time period as it pertains to the average working class, fans of period dramas such as Downton Abbey, and those looking for a quick read that will have them laughing while simultaneously getting a bit of historical education.

Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.

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