Monday, February 20, 2012

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads): 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.

And here's what I thought:  This book's full title is: Below Stairs: The classic kitchen maid's memoir that inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.   I am going to admit right now: I have not watched Downton Abbey yet.  I didn't start at the beginning, and I know if I try to watch now, I'll be hopelessly confused ----- so I'm waiting for Season 1 to become available from my library (I'm about #15 on the holds list for it).  However, I did grow up watching episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs, so I'm quite familiar with that series.

Anyway ---- as you can tell from the summary, this is a memoir of a woman who worked in service, beginning as a kitchen maid and working her way up to the position of cook.  Reading this book is very much like listening to someone sit and tell you stories.  The author has a very straightforward style, where she is just telling you about her life.  It's very entertaining -- she has a good sense of humor about things, but at the same time, she doesn't soften things; it's clear that what she did was hard work, both as a kitchen maid, but also as a cook.

She came from a large family, and entered service at the age of 15, in the 1920s.  I found it fascinating to read about all of the duties she was expected to do, with little or no guidance (she explains, for example, how to blacklead the kitchen grate and how no one explained how to do this at first).  I will say, the one thing that I thought more than once while reading this book was that I will never, ever again complain about the housework I do.  In comparison to what Margaret did every day as part of her duties, the amount I do seems pretty paltry.  The sheer amount of work that she did was pretty astounding -- and it really makes me appreciate all that domestic servants did in their work.   It also made me appreciate things I take completely for granted, like my vacuum, my dishwasher, my dual-fuel range and oven, etc.

I think that's the one thing that I kept thinking about when I was reading this book, other than really enjoying the insights into life below stairs: that I really did appreciate all that the women and men who were in domestic service did.  I know a lot of what they did was taken for granted by their employers, but typically, these servants were the ones who really kept things running smoothly -- and I appreciate how much hard work that took.

I found this a completely engaging and fascinating read.  I'm planning on not only watching Downtown Abbey at some point, but I'm going to re-watch Manor House, a PBS program where women and men in 2002 went and lived as they would at a manor home in the 1900s in Britain.  One family was chosen to be the wealthy employers, and others signed up to be servants --  it's a really interesting view into what life was like, on both sides of the coin.

First lines:  I was born in 1907 in Hove, the second child of a family of seven.  My earliest recollection is that other children seemed to be better off than we were.  But our parents cared so much for us.

Thoughts on the cover:  I like it, although I wish it was a photo of the author, because I was curious about what she looked like.  However, I liked that it showed a woman in a uniform that looks like the one the author describes at one point.


Jo K said...

I love Downton Abbey and I like the straightforward story-telling kind of writing. I should check this book out. Great review!

Anonymous said...

I first read of D.A. last summer (or was it a full year ago?) I have a vague impression of dialing past it on tv last year, before it exploded in popularity. So when it was shown this winter on PBS I was ready to catch the bug, and I did catch it hard. The WWI era, including the preceding decades, is my favorite historical epoch (but when will someone write of the German experience in those years - sort of a Kaiser Wilhelm version of D.A.?) And who hasn't fallen in love with Lady Mary?! I need both to read "Below Stairs" and get on the list for the D.A. dvd! - Footsie

The Lit Bitch said...

I have this book to read next, I am so pleased to hear that you enjoyed it :)

You will really like Downton Abbey, it is so addictive!!

I am reading, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by The Countess of Carnarvon, Fiona Carnarvon right now and I am loving every page!! I am totally feeding my DA addiction right now :).

If you are looking for more DA books check out my Project Downton page:

We have been adding lots of DA inspired books on there :).

Great review, I can't wait to read this book next!!

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