Title: Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey”
Author: Margaret Powell
Publication Date: 1970
Hardcover: 177 pages
Links: Amazon – GoodReads
My Rating: Four Stars
Synopsis from GoodReads.com
Brilliantly evoking the long-vanished world of masters and servants portrayed in Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, Margaret Powell’s classic memoir of her time in service, Below Stairs, 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 5.30am 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 are told with wit, warmth, and a sharp eye for the prejudices of her situation. Margaret Powell’s true story of a life spent in service is a fascinating “downstairs” portrait of the glittering, long-gone worlds behind the closed doors of Downton Abbey and 165 Eaton Place.
Have you seen this show?
In a nutshell, this is why you should read Below Stairs.
This book was fantastic! I loved the tone of the novel; it feels as though I am actually sitting down with this wonderful lady and listening to her ramblings of her life. (I particularly enjoyed the few times she went off-subject and had to pull herself back onto topic). There were even a few “back in my day” comments that solidified the image of a little old lady sitting next to me with a cup of tea and her knitting or some sort of crafty project in front of her.
I loved reading about all the different personalities of the houses she worked in and how they corresponded to the master/mistress of that house. Powell, I believe, tried to be as open minded as possible when she wrote about her former employers – the ever-present “THEM” – but some of her bias still got in the way, which only made the story ring more true. The differences in the mistresses was astonishing. Lady Downall, who appeared to be the most kind of the group, went out of her way to make sure her staff was happy. Reading about Powell’s experiences with her were almost something of a relief after the dear Lady Gibbons, who wanted to be referred to constantly as “Her Ladyship” and inspected the pantry every morning with the intensity of a drill sergeant.
I did knock a star off because it took me quite a while to get involved in this book. I carried it around with me for a while, looked at it on my shelf for a while, and then when I finally pulled it down to read, my mind kept wandering for the first few chapters, which I now realize were mostly filled with social commentary that would normally appeal to me. I wanted to dive right into the scandal (which Powell provides plenty of later on in the book), and it took me a bit to settle in to learning about the background and setting the scene.
Powell continues with her fun, witty writing style throughout the story, keeping me engaged (after those first few parts), and I could see her attempting to cook a souffle in my mind’s eye, or fishing out a kipper from the pig’s bucket when the mistress suddenly decides she wants it. Definitely a good read.