The runaway popularity of the BBC’s Downton Abbey has rekindled an interest in all things upstairs-downstairs, including this memoir, first published in 1968. Reprinted and blurbed as “The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey,” it’s a plain-spoken reminiscence of life in domestic service in England in the 1920s.
Born in 1907, Margaret Powell went into service at age 14 as a kitchen maid (at Downton, she’d be Daisy). She eventually parlayed her experience into a position as cook at a variety of well-to-do households. A frustrated teacher, cut off from further education by lack of money, Powell had a hard time adapting to life below stairs, with its long hours, raw-knuckled scrubbing, and circumscribed social life. The class divide between upstairs and downstairs was the worst. Polishing their brass, scouring their floors, and ironing their bootlaces, Powell never bought into the idea that her employers were all that and a bag of chips. Early on, she was reprimanded for handing her mistress a newspaper that should have been placed on a silver salver: “Tears started to trickle down my cheeks; that someone could think that you were so low that you couldn’t even hand them anything out of your hands…”
“The employers always claimed that the training they gave you stood you in good stead when you left and married and had a family of your own. When I left domestic service I took with me the knowledge of how to cook an elaborate seven-course dinner and an enormous inferiority complex; I can’t say that I found those an asset to my married life.”
Powell’s account is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense counterbalance to television’s soap-operatic melodramas. There’s nothing romanticized about the work or the living conditions, which she escaped as soon as she could land a husband, and the grim reality of a young, single housemaid caught pregnant plays out very differently than is likely on Masterpiece Theater. Powell’s voice comes through clearly, like a long chat with a great-aunt (OK, OK, maybe foods had more flavor back in the day, but I had to laugh at her observation that spiders used to spin more complicated webs. They just don’t make arachnids like they used to!). It’s a quick read and an interesting window into a time and place.
And while you’re on the waiting list, you should be reading Rosina Harrison’s account of life as Lady Astor’s lady’s maid, Rose: My Life in Service.
Check the WRL catalog for Below Stairs.