Friday, June 1, 2012

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell


It's all about timing... and marketing. The long wait for season three is beginning to feel interminable and Downton Abbey fans are restless. Could there be a better time to reissue Margaret Powell's 1968 memoir Below Stairs? A description like "The Classics Kitchen Maid's Memoir that inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey" on the cover instantly targets the audience.

I loved Margaret Powell's plain-spoken, yet feisty voice. She was an intelligent young woman forced to leave school at an early age and enter the work force, eventually ending up 'in service' as a kitchen maid - the worst job in the house. Years of hard work and determination, however, lead her to the best job - cook. It's impossible for Downton Abbey fans not to compare Powell to Daisy and, later on, to Mrs. Patmore.

Below Stairs serves up a fascinating look at real Downton Abbey-esque situations from heirarchy and protocol amongst servants, to kitchen routines and meal preparation, and even relationships with the 'upstairs people'.

Some favorite passages:
"Wealthy children were never allowed to play with low-class children like us. They were never allowed to play with anyone but similarly wealthy children... Mind you, we had a kind of contempt for them. They couldn't do the things that we could do.... They weren't allowed to do anything exciting. It wasn't their fault. So we never mixed, never." p.10

"Later on in life I never ever took a place where there were nannies and children, and where they had to have separate meals in the nursery. The nanny would come down with all the airs and graces of a miniature employer, saying what the children wanted and what she wanted. There were always feuds between the nursery and the kitchen. There always were and there always had been. The parlourmaid, the housemaid, and the cook always thought nanny and nursemaid considered themselves better than they  were, and they did, of course." p 79

" Living in such close contact with other servants, a lot of quarrels went on. You can't coop up a lot of females, perhaps it even applies to men, without words passing, and what words, too. But it didn't matter how much we servants quarreled among ourselves, a united front was always presented to them upstairs... We always called them 'Them'. 'Them' was the enemy, 'Them' always overworked us, and 'Them' underpaid us, and to 'Them' servants were a race apart, a necessary evil. "p. 91

"You see I was determined to get married. I didn't want to be an old maid. In those days people put on a very contemptuous expression when they talked about 'being on the shelf', or being a spinster. It meant you were lacking practically everything. Nowadays women who don't get married have often had all the sex they want and all the security. They just don't want to take a man for life, which I don't blame them for in the least. But I needed one to support me. I couldn't see myself being a cook for the rest of my life. I wanted one to take me on for life." p. 135-6

"...even in those days I always found time for reading, I mean books that were worth reading."  p.136-7

"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." p.190-1

Bottom line: Below Stairs is a must read for Downton Abbey fans.

My rating:



FTC disclosure: borrowed from the library

18 comments:

  1. I had to buy this several months ago because the library's waiting list was too long. Have I read it yet? Um, no. But it sounds great and as soon as I read some more Victorians, I'll squeeze it in. I need to feed my DA obsession as well. It sounds like something I'd just love.

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    1. Karen K. - LOL, have done this way too many times myself! You'll enjoy Below Stairs... whenever you get to it.

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  2. A great selection of quotes, you really captured her unique voice - "plain-spoken, yet feisty." I'm hoping that with this interest in this book, more of hers will be re-issued.

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    1. Lisa May - Thanks, I copied down so many quotes and had a hard time picking just a few to share! I'd love to read more of her books.

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  3. Do read the sequels if you have a chance JoAnn. These are 'Climbing the Stairs', and 'The Treasure Upstairs'. They are more lighthearted, giving more details of her social and family life, courtship, and how life changed after the war.

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    1. Michelle Ann - Thanks so much for the suggestions! I'd be very interested in reading the sequels. They aren't available through my library system, so I'll keep an eye out in the bookstores.

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  4. I'm probably the only person on the planet who hasn't yet seen Downton Abbey -- but I love the Edwardian era and class distinctions in lit -- this is so right up my alley!

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    1. Audra - You MUST watch Downton Abbey!

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  5. Sounds good! I read Up & Down Stairs this year, which gave a history of country house servants and found it very interesting. This sounds much more personal though. I like the quotes you included.

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    1. Melody - I already have that one on my wish list. Glad to hear you enjoyed the history.. Below Stairs is probably a bit more 'personal'.

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  6. I need to add that to my growing summer list. Enjoyed Downton Abbey.

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    1. Midlife Jobhunter - If you enjoy Downton Abbey, I have no doubt you'll like Below Stairs. It's fairly quick reading, so perfect for summer.

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  7. Have you read Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor, by Rosina Harrison? A very similar voice. I liked both of these books very much.

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    1. Audrey - Haven't read it yet, but it's on my wish list!

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  8. I'm so glad that I have this one on my bedside table...as soon as I finish the last book in Fifty Shades trilogy, I will be reading this one next!!

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    1. Staci - I just know you'll enjoy this one! Will be curious to hear what you think of Fifty Shades.

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  9. This is shocking but I have not seen Downtown Abbey and so I need to catch up on that and read this book!

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    1. Kathleen - You MUST watch the first episode of Downton Abbey. That's all it takes and you'll be hooked.

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