Below Stairs is the memoir of life in domestic service of Margaret Powell, an Englishwoman born in 1907 (she lived until 1984). It was published in 1968 and in its 2012 publication is subtitled “The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir that Inspired ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ and ‘Downton Abbey.'”
When Powell was 13 years old, she earned a scholarship to continue to secondary school, but her family couldn’t afford to take it, with the books, clothes and other necessities which would be required. Instead, she went to work at a laundry as soon as she was able, at the age of 14, promptly being sacked at 15 because she was due for a raise. Although she didn’t want to go into service, there were few options. She chose to become a kitchen maid because she hated needlework. Kitchen maids were the lowest of the low in domestic service, doing the dirty jobs like blacking stoves and cleaning the family’s shoes. In most of the homes where Powell worked, the entire staff was looked down upon as less than human, not just the kitchen maid. At the age of 18, Powell lied about her age and became a cook, also exaggerating her skill and experience. However, her creativity and ability to follow cookbook directions paid off and she became a fine enough cook in the end, even taking on parties and dinners after she was married, out of domestic service, and the mother of three school-age sons.
I was surprised by Powell’s cavalier attitude about the way society changed in the years between her youth and the writing ofBelow Stairs. Usually, you hear people lament the lowered morality in the youth when they look back, but Powell’s view was very matter-of-fact. She spoke much about how her main aim in life while she was working was to find a husband, and she said “That’s the way it was in those days,” mentioning that a young woman nowadays could have as much sex as she wanted without having to get married. She was also very matter-of-fact when describing the things Agnes, an under-parlourmaid who fell pregnant after being seduced by the lady of the house’s nephew, did in order to try to induce a miscarriage. As a pro-life, pro-family Catholic Christian, my views differ and if I were to describe these things, I would probably deplore (with mercy) more than describe.
Despite these reservations, I did enjoy Below Stairs. Powell was an articulate, funny, and descriptive author. Seldom did she assume that the reader would already understand bygone manners, ways of working, or social structure. As I mentioned in my review of The Help, I’m a sucker for social history. I always want to know what life was like in the past. I watched Downton Abbey because I heard so many people talk about it, but I checked out Below Stairs (as well as some other books which I will be reviewing down the line) because I needed to know more. If you are interested in social history from a first-person point of view, you might like to check out Below Stairs.