Book Review – Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey”

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you like oral history or personal accounts, you’ll enjoy this memoir. Originally published in 1968, it’s the author’s account of her time working as a domestic servant in England in the 1920s, although, as you can tell from the sub-title, it’s been recently republished to capitalize on the popularity of Downton Abbey. So take that leftism and labor studies! Nothing popularizes working-class stories like the profit motive!

I became an avid Downton watcher last fall, and I was looking for a book to ease my parting with season 3. If you come to it hoping to read about the real Daisy or Mrs. Patmore, you’ll be disappointed. Powell worked as a kitchen maid and cook sure enough, but never for the kind of grand house the television show depicts, with the large staff and elaborate ceremony. Nor were most of her employers “gentry”; rather, they were simply people who could afford a big house and the people to maintain it (some more than others).

What you do get here is an entertaining rehash of Powell’s early life, full of anecdotes and details that are just too precise and too foreign to be made up. It’s easy to see why filmmakers and fiction writers would be inspired: Powell gives historic information about the daily life of a 1920s home, from the material of the sink to the conventions of going to the movies, that aren’t included in standard history books. All of it is well-told and well-written, with a pleasant folksiness. You’ll feel as if you’re sipping tea at your grandmother’s kitchen table.

Sexual politics run throughout the book. Powell continually mentions her desire, as a young woman, to find a husband, marry, and get out of domestic service; and she describes at length the obstacles her schedule and position created to doing just that. It’s hard to date when you work fourteen-hour days. While Powell did eventually marry, leave service, and have children, there isn’t much romance in this book. Instead, you’ll read a lot of Powell’s thoughts on her different employers, the mores of changing jobs and getting that all-important reference, and relationships between the female servants, the cooks and maids. Powell speaks openly about her lack of sexual education, her fear of getting pregnant, and the repercussions if a young woman in her station did. Most of the male-female relationships here are frankly transactional: women exchange physical closeness for material gifts, and ultimately marry to live on their husband’s wages.

If anything, I was most surprised by the bitterness Powell expresses toward her employers.  I’m not surprised that she is bitter (that seems natural), but how openly Powell speaks about the unfairness of the class system. She describes vividly, for instance, the humiliation of Christmas, when the servants have to assemble to receive “presents” from the family and graciously thank them, right before working overtime to handle the extra holiday entertaining and celebrating.

Powell is hardly a revolutionary, though: she speaks fondly of the one kind family she worked for, that treated the servants well by decorating their rooms with matching furniture instead of cast-offs and giving them their own Christmas tree. The semi-stated moral is that masters need to be kinder, and the whole master-servant issue will be solved. Powell also empathizes with the rich: if she had money, she admits, she’d do everything she could to keep it, too, instead of share-and-share alike.

In the end, Powell’s writing did make her a woman with money, and the jacket description lauds her “ambition” to “aim high” even though she came from lowly origins. (What exactly she was aiming at–an ordinary college education, a life as a wife and mother?–and why this is so “high” is left unsaid.) The message, in the marketing and writing, is pure boot-strap conservatism, wherein we needn’t concern ourselves with the fate of other domestic servants who didn’t write bestselling memoirs, or the morality of a class system altogether.

So, read it, yes. But read it for the content, not the message.

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