Saturday, May 19, 2012

A kitchen maid and cook between the wars

Below Stairs, Margaret Powell

I learned about this book from JoAnn's posts over on Lakeside Musing.  There is quite a line for it at the library, no doubt due to the subtitle: "The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey."  I am one of those strange people immune to Downton Abbey, but I do like Gosford Park, which Julian Fellowes wrote with Robert Altmann, a 1930s murder mystery with a  similar "upstairs/downstairs" split in perspective.  I'm also interested in food history, and I thought a memoir from the kitchen's point of view would be interesting reading.

To my mind, Below Stairs reads more like an oral history than a traditional autobiography or memoir.  It has a warm and immediate feel, like sitting down with Margaret Powell over a cup of tea and listening to her reminisce.  Her voice draws you right into her story and carries you along.  Powell was born in Hove in England in 1907, the second child and oldest daughter.  Her mother worked as a char and her father as a painter, struggling to support their growing family.  In the first chapters, Powell described her childhood in Hove, the fun they managed despite their poverty and the constant hunger of growing children.  At a very young age, she became aware of the wide gaps between the classes, both socially and economically, which had a tremendous impact on her.  Yet she clearly considered that in some ways they were better off then than in the England of the late 1960s. 

At age thirteen, she won a scholarship that she hoped would lead to a teaching career.  But her parents couldn't afford to support her for the five years that would take, with five other siblings at home.  So Margaret went out to work, trying a variety of places, including companion to a harridan in a bath chair.  None of these ended well, and finally her mother told her it would have to be domestic service.  Since Margaret couldn't sew, she wouldn't qualify as a housemaid or nursery maid, so that left the kitchen.  She would have to start as a kitchen maid, one of the lowest rungs on the service ladder, but if she could learn enough, she could eventually become a cook herself.

A kitchen maid's lot was a miserable one of back-breaking labor that included serving dinner to her fellow servants.  Always at the cook's beck and call, she was given the hardest and dullest tasks. The work was bad enough, but the attitude of most employers made it even worse.  The servants' quarters were spartan, the usual basements and attics, their food plain (except for leftovers from the elaborate upstairs meals), their clothing drab, and their free time strictly controlled.  The servants also had to listen to constant complaints about the "servant problem" from their employers and visitors. As in Gosford Park, the "upstairs" folk were generally oblivious to the presence of servants and certainly had no idea how they were dissected and found wanting by those "downstairs."  Powell and her fellow servants often felt great contempt for their employers, again like Gosford Park.  She resented the contrast between their easy lives and hers, feeling that there had to be a better balance, that the poor deserved better (while never advocating violent change or revolution).  As she moved from kitchen maid to cook, Powell did observe a change for the better in the working conditions of domestic servants over the years, with more concern for their comfort and a practical recognition that treating workers well paid off in better service.

Like many of the women that she worked with, Powell's goal was to escape domestic service by marriage.  She was frank about the difficulties of achieving that goal, in the years following the Great War that left so many "surplus women."  She was equally frank (though not explicit) about sex, "the only pleasure poor people could afford."  I had no idea that even in non-religious homes like hers the children were regularly sent off to church on Sunday afternoons for Sunday School, because that gave parents their only private time in the week.  She discussed sexual politics in detail as well, within her own socio-ecomonic group as well as between the upper and lower classes.

Powell achieved her "lifelong ambition" by marrying a milkman. "I wasn't madly in love, but I cared about him."  She had no inclination to work outside the home then, and she was kept busy with the three sons that arrived in short order.  But after her husband was drafted during the Second World War, she was forced to work, this time as a cleaner.  As her sons grew up, though, she found the time and space to return to school, to learn just for the sake of learning.
    "People say to me, 'I can't understand you doing it.'
    "I think it springs from the beginnings. All life is bound together, isn't it? I liked school. I won a scholarship which I couldn't afford to take; I went into domestic service. I was dissatisfied and all this dissatisfaction was worked out in my attitudes to the environments of domestic service.  If I'd been something else I should have been militant against that life, I expect . . .
    "So despite what it may sound like, I'm not embittered about having had to go into domestic service. I do often wonder what would have happened if I could have realized my ambition and have been a teacher, but I'm happy now, and as my knowledge increases and my reading widens, I look forward to a happy future."
I enjoyed this very readable book, a clear-eyed look back at a vanished world.  When it was published in 1968, the study of history was moving away from the "Great Men" focus.  Historians were just beginning to recognize the importance of what we call "social history," of previously-ignored topics like domestic life and the role of women.  Powell gives a voice to those who were often overlooked and undervalued (not to mention overworked and underpaid).


  1. As you enjoyed this, I do recommend the two sequels, 'Climbing the Stairs' and 'The Treasure Upstairs' which amusingly cover more of her social life, courtship, and her life and work after marriage.

  2. Thank you! I saw a reference to this being her first book, but no mention of other titles. I've put in an inter-library loan request for Climbing the Stairs, since our library systems only have Below Stairs.

  3. Lisa, this sounds terrific. Almost twenty years ago a book called The Servant's Hand: English Fiction from Below made a bit of a splash in lit crit circles. I enjoyed it, although it would not mean much to someone who had not read a lot of British fiction. You might like it, though, since I think you have read widely in that area. Author: Bruce W. Robbins. This is a scholarly treatment, but I remember it as well-written and readable.

  4. I ordered this for my library system because I thought it would appeal to Downton Abbey fans, but it sounds much more complex than the series. I always wonder just how things really ran in the great houses with so many servants and how they really felt about their lives. It is hard for me to believe that the 'upstairs' crowd was able to completely ignore and overlook the way the servants lived - so odd to me! This book sounds really good. I'll have to check it out myself when the holds run out!

  5. Fay, I'll definitely be looking for the Robbins book, thank you. As I was reading this, in the back of my mind were all the books I've read recently where the servants are there in the background.

    Anboyln, it would be a dream come true to get to order books for my libraries :) This was a much more serious book than I expected - I don't mean heavy or dull at all, because Powell is such an engaging narrator, but she takes a very analytical approach.

  6. This book was just what I needed to combat my Downton Abbey Withdrawal Syndrome - so glad you enjoyed it, too! There are some great suggestions for further reading in the comments above... I'm off to see if they are available in my library system.

    I'm SO far behind in writing reviews and may just do several 'mini' versions in an effort to get caught up :-)

  7. I was so happy to find there are sequels (one called "Albert My Consort"). I think I'll be keeping inter-library loan busy. Maybe there will be more reprints of her earlier books.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!