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.
Oh sure, the life of a kitchen-maid was all about drudgery and humiliation, but Margaret Powell lets you know right away that there is more to her character than beaten-down servitude... Powell's feistiness does more than simply enliven her account of life in domestic service during the interwar period in England. It sharpens her observations to a fine point and turns her anecdotes into acute critiques of the class system and its hypocrisies. (Reviewed by Amy Reading).
An irresistible inside account of life "in service" and a fascinating document of a vanished - if fetishistically longed-for - time and place.
The Guardian (UK)
Powell is very good at dramatising those mortifying moments when a servant's lack of autonomy, of self-hood, are brought painfully home to her.
Daily Express (UK) Below Stairs is certainly feisty but it hardly expresses a sentimental attachment to the time when domestic service was a primary occupation in the land... Always an avid reader she took her O and A-levels late in life and gained fame as an author. Her memoirs are spirited and heart-warming because of her, not because of her subject.
Pendle Today (UK) Below Stairs brings to glorious life the toil and turmoil of domestic service in an era of deference and division. Witty, wise and wonderfully cynical, Margaret's story is in a 'class' of its own.
Recent Reader Reviews
Rated of 5
by Louise J Simply Charming! Below Stairs is the true story of Margaret Powell who worked as a kitchen maid – the lowest of the low – in 1920’s England. I appreciated the book for its honesty, directness, and the informative way in which it was written. I also appreciated... Read More
In Britain in the early twentieth century, occupational options were few for women. Up until World War I, domestic service constituted the largest single employment for English women, even ahead of factory work. The 1901 census shows that approximately 40.5% of the working adult female population worked in service, to which must be added a significant number of girls, some as young as ten. The profession was wholly unregulated. A typical maid would work 80 hours a week, far more than the 56 hours that a factory worker might put in.
The number of servants a family employed was the key index to their social status, and even middle-class families would have had several, but early in the twentieth century, that began to shift. In 1904, a German architect observed that English middle-class families were complaining of the scarcity of the "£20 maid," one whose annual salary was £20. Women were starting to find employment in shops and offices, and middle-class families were beginning to use new appliances for housework that obviated the cost of...
Brilliant and utterly enthralling in its depiction of childhood, love and war, England and class. At its center this is a profoundand profoundly movingexploration of shame, forgiveness and the difficulty of absolution.
Technology in the kitchen does not just mean the Pacojets and sous-vide of the modernist kitchen. It can also mean the humbler tools of everyday cooking and eating: a wooden spoon and a skillet, chopsticks and forks.
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