Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Insipired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” by Margaret Powell

Upstairs Downstairs cover

Do you watch Downton Abbey?

If you answered yes, congratulations, we can continue being friends. I’m currently obsessed with that show, and so when I was in Barnes and Noble last week browsing through the biography/memoir section (like I do) this caught my eye, and I was about to put it back when I noticed that the title was blaring MEMOIR THAT INSPIRED “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” AND “DOWNTON ABBEY” and the next thing I knew I bought it. So kudos to the marketing team behind this book, because they know exactly what they’re doing.

If you don’t know what Downton Abbey is or haven’t watched it, I’d suggest you go do that immediately. I would also suggest you watch Gosford Park, which was also created by Julian Fellowes. I haven’t seen Upstairs, Downstairs, but can only assume that it is also great. You can continue with this review if you like, but be forewarned that it will contain lots of references to Downton Abbey and probably Gosford Park too, and you will probably find yourself wondering why anyone would find the memoir of a maid in the 1930’s so interesting. Guys. Guys. You don’t even know.

Margaret Powell’s memoir begins, “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.” Powell spends a few chapters telling us about her childhood and what it was like to grow up dirt poor and hungry, so we can understand that going into service was really the only option available to her. She left school at thirteen and spent a while working in a hotel laundry, and then at fifteen got a job as a kitchen maid for an upper-class family. (those of you who immediately began imagining Powell as Daisy: we have a lot in common)

In case anyone’s curious, kitchen maids are the lowest of the low in the servant hierarchy. They are, essentially, the servant’s servants. If you can’t imagine how much that must have sucked, let Powell explain it to you:

“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 a paste to do the grate with. I didn’t know this; and nobody bothered to tell me. I tried to do it 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 nothing else, this book will relieve you of the illusion of happy servants, bustling around cheerfully and whistling while they work and all that. Powell is very clear about one thing: being a servant sucks.

“It was the opinion of ‘Them’ upstairs that servants couldn’t appreciate good living or comfort, therefore they must have plain fare, they must have dungeons to work in and to eat in, and must retire to cold spartan bedrooms to sleep. After all, what’s the point of spending money making life easier and more comfortable for a lot of ungrateful people who couldn’t care less what you did for them? They never tried, mind, to find out if we would have cared more by making our conditions good and our bedrooms nice places in which to rest. …But if ‘Them’ upstairs could have heard the conversation the parlourmaids carried down from upstairs, they would have realized that our impassive expressions and respectful demeanours hid scorn, and derision.”

As you can probably see, there’s a good deal of bitterness in Powell’s narration. But there should be – she never wanted to go into service, but her situation in life gave her no other option. The bitterness and the anger annoyed some other reviewers, but I liked it, because it felt genuine. It didn’t hurt that Powell is a great narrator – in addition to dishing out the gossip and letting us know in no uncertain terms that being a kitchen maid sucks eggs, she’s always reminding us that things were a lot harder before we had all this newfangled technology. Every few sentences she’s like, “This was before we had refrigerators” or “Nowadays you can just go to a supermarket and pick up so-and-so, but in my day…” She does everything except tel you she had to walk to school barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways.

I also appreciated the fact that Powell is secretly ballsy as hell. After working as a kitchen maid for two years, she decides that it’s bullshit and she wants to work as a cook. So she lies about her age and basically bluffs her way into a job as a cook, where she then tells the mistress of the house that she certainly will not wear the little cap that comes with her uniform, thank you very much.

And her anger is understandable, because Powell’s life was really very sad. She did really well in school and wanted to continue after she was thirteen, but since continuing her education would mean living in her parents’ house (and her parents having to provide for her) until she was eighteen, she had to leave school in order to get a job. And Powell was smart – she talks about how she loved reading and would often scare boys away at dances by asking them what they thought of Dickens. In one of her later jobs, when her employer chides her for not being careful enough around the knick-knacks, Powell replies, “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.” It’s kind of sad when Powell reflects at the end of the memoir how different her life could have been if she had continued her schooling and become a teacher like she’d wanted.

But it’s not all sad. Did I mention the gossip? Because oh my, there is gossip. Those familiar with Julian Fellowes’s various shows and movies will find themselves picking out his characters in this book. As I read, I found myself thinking, “Yep, that’s Mrs. Patmore. Oh, that’s totally Elsie. Aw, there’s Ethel.” I was thinking as I got into the book that it could only be better if it turned out that Powell knew a gay footman who spent all his time scheming and hitting on various male guests, but I knew that it was a slim chance. But then Powell gave me this delightful tidbit: “Once I heard Mrs. Mellroy say, ‘Not her ladyship!’ Ambrose Datchet said, ‘I saw it with my own eyes.’ So Mrs. Mellroy said, ‘What, with her?’ ‘Her, and with him, too,’ he said. ‘He was a very handsome young man.’ I gathered it was one of the footman having an affair with both the lady and the master of the house.” Holy shit, guys, Thomas (or possibly Henry Denton) is real. That’s all Powell says about the footman, so I can only assume that he had a malicious ladies’ maid as his partner in crime and they spent their time plotting and spying on everyone and it was awesome.

Verdict: four out of five stars

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