[22 February 2012]
First published in Great Britain in 1968, Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs was reissued in the United States in January 2012 with the subtitle The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey and a note from Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, on the back cover. It reads, in part, Powell’s “memoirs, funny and poignant, angry and charming, haunted me, until many years later, I made my own attempts to capture those people for the camera. I certainly owe her a great debt.”
Below Stairs begins with Powell’s earliest memories, growing up in Hove in the 1910s. She talks about her family, childhood, and education in the opening chapters. One of her first paying jobs (as the oldest girl in a large, working-class family, she worked her entire life) was taking care of a woman who was confined to a “bathchair”; Powell lasted a week:
“One particular day… she wanted me to push her along the seafront. We went down to the West Pier, about a mile and a half. Then she wanted me to arrange her chair so that the wind was at the back of her and yet so she could still see the people. She was at her worst that day… so that after I tried to get her into position about six times and still it wasn’t right, I just gave up. I didn’t say anything. I just walked away…”
Next was a brief stint in a sweet shop (she was caught giving the candy away to her siblings and their friends) and about a year’s time in the local laundry. She was fired from the laundry when she turned15; the laundry either had to fire her or give her a raise.
At the age of 15, Powell entered domestic service, as a kitchen maid. Before 8AM, she had to “clean the flues, light the fire, blacklead the grate… clean the steel fender and the fire-irons… clean the brass on the front door, scrub the steps, clean the boots and shoes, and lay the servants’ breakfast”.
Powell was not always the best maid or cook, but her observation skills appear to be consistently spot-on. Of one employer she noted:
“Like most of the meals this was very different from what we had. Mrs. Clydesdale thought only about our nourishment, so we used to have things like herrings and cod and stews and milk puddings, but none of these nourishing foods ever found their way upstairs. So I was forced to the conclusion that even their internal organs differed from ours, inasmuch as what nourished us did them no good at all.”
Of another employer she observed: “Mrs Cutler used to be very keen on helping the fallen women, from a distance. Like a lot of people, she could be generous if she was not involved.”
Not that all of Powell’s employers were completely unfeeling. One kept her on after she burnt an expensive turkey; another called servants by their first names and gave them “lovely presents” for their birthdays.
One of Powell’s favorite sentiments in Below Stairs is—“it’s not the way it used to be”. From purchasing meat to married women working to spider’s webs, it all has changed. According to Powell: “I know you’ll laugh at me, but spiders today don’t spin the way they used to”.
And while many times, Powell notes how life was much harder then, she also explains what was better: “Nowadays they are at their wits’ end to put things on the market to put back the flavour into food, the flavour that’s come out with freezing. But it can’t be done. No one can delude me into thinking that it can be, but of course if you’ve not had it the old way you don’t know the difference.”
Another thing that was better back in the day—bars: “Pubs in those days had life. A pub now is only one degree removed from a morgue, isn’t it? No one speaks to anyone, there’s no life or gaiety.”
Still, despite the amount of time Powell spends on the differences, it doesn’t appear everything has changed—the class issues Powell discusses don’t always seem that different from today. Powell’s question of a fellow servant—“couldn’t it be equalled out more—more equitably—for them not to have so much, and for us to have a little bit more? Why do you and I have to work in this dungeon with the barest of comforts while they have everything upstairs?”—seems like it could come from 1920 or 2012.
The honesty and timelessness of Powell’s story makes this a quick and heartfelt read. However, despite the claims on the cover, this book might not be for Downton Abbey fans—it doesn’t have all the drama found in the television show. (Note: I didn’t start watching the show until after I finished reading the book.) Considering the book seems to be marketed to fans of the show (the front cover states “Anyone who enjoyed Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs will relish this feisty memoir”), I can’t help but wonder if some readers will begin Below Stairs with unrealistic expectations and be a little disappointed by this straightforward and often simply told narrative.