Let me begin by saying, I loved this book. As soon as I heard it was going to be released in the US this January, I had to have it. First released in the 1960s in the UK, ‘Below Stairs’ is a funny, bitingly witty and sometimes sad account of Margaret Powell’s working class life in service. At age 13, Margaret – in spite of earning a scholarship and being an excellent student – is urged to seek employment due to her family’s meager existence, and as disappointed as she is, she evolves quickly from sweet shop worker and hotel maid to care giver at the tender age of 14, to begin work as a kitchen maid at the much larger well established homes in London. By the time she gets to age 15, Margaret is smart and determined. She hopes for the best, not the worst. She makes it very clear that she is definitely not interested in staying a lowly kitchen maid, her journey begins with lessons in gourmet cooking; that alone is hilarious – not laugh out loud hilarious, but dry, oh so dry -as she sets her sights on the ultimate prize of becoming the cook, so she can rule the establishment ‘Below Stairs.’
I make no secret of how obsessed I am with Downton Abbey. In fact, In this re-introduction of the book, Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton writes a little ‘thank you’ on the back, telling us this memoir inspired him to capture characteristics from certain people in the book and put them on camera. Thank goodness he did, I can’t imagine life without Downton Abbey- er, well, I can, but it is so much better with Downton in it. I wish I had read this book before I watched the show however, It is nowhere near scandalous nor dramatic. What it is, is a poignant look at growing up in Hove, in the early 1900s, within a working class family that barely had any money, instead, filled with an abundance of warmth and joy, Margaret recalls wonderful memories of her life at home. Leaving home to work for others was not what Margaret had envisioned for herself obviously. It is a rude awakening of sorts, and yet the whole style of the book is straightforward and simple, there are no names mentioned, just a hint of a scandal and enough information to make you think something interesting has happened. It doesn’t need any elaborate phrases to be effective. It just is.
Margaret is keenly observant of the prejudice that existed toward the working class, she is clearly aware that her position in society and the class she was born into, affords a life in service and nothing more. She wants to change perception and is sometimes frustrated that she cannot, even though she is astute, educated and well read. There is a funny part in the book where the lady of the house wonders why on earth Margaret would ever feel the need to read, when she should cook and clean. She makes no excuses about her looks, she goes as far as to say she is not pretty, nowhere close – she is large and ungainly. She pokes fun at the difficulty in meeting a suitable gentleman, the thought of marriage and children seem appealing, if only the man she wanted to marry didn’t clean chimneys or spend his time drinking at the pub. The distinction of classes is very evident throughout the book; Margaret fought hard for equal wages and courtesy towards the working class, in spite of the fact that the rich are so condescending you want to shake them out of their snooty boots. Her entrance to this new world of service as a kitchen maid is interesting. The expectation that a mere fifteen year old could blacken a stove – which meant she had to reapply a paint like substance to a wood fired stove after it was used for cooking, iron out boot laces – now there’s a phrase I have not heard in a while – scrub vegetables, wake up at 5.30am and work until dark to clean when everyone else goes to sleep, seems ludicrous. Sadly, that’s how it was.
I love the last bit in the book where Margaret marries someone she thinks is finally suitable, retires from service and stays home to raise her children. I also loved the dry wit about not needing to cook gourmet meals even though she was an expert because it went unappreciated, she had to learn to cook normal food. I loved the attitude of this confident woman who confesses to her aggression and smart thinking with none of the bitterness we expect from someone who has had to serve people who think they are better than her. I found it sad when she went out to cook again because she needed money to supply her children with clothing that was required for their grammar school education. Even then, Margaret was determined her children would not suffer. She wanted them out – out of service, out of the need to serve those better off, she wanted her children to travel and educate themselves. It left me thinking what a wonderful role model she would have been, had she lived today. A pity it was a hundred years too early.