Memoir

Book Review: Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

I’m not sure what I expected when I bought my copy of Below Stairs by Margaret Powell. The dust jacket and catalog copy referred to this book as the inspiration for Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, two shows I enjoy watching when I catch them on television.  I’ve always been fascinated by life in the big manor houses both here in the United States and in England.  I thought this book would give me more insight into the life of the servants from that time period, and I enjoy memoirs, so I picked up a copy.

This book was a fast, enjoyable read. It wasn’t at all what I expected, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, mostly because the narrator, Margaret, has such a distinctive, brutally honest voice throughout the book. Margaret is born to poor parents in Hove, England, one of seven children. As a young teenager she has to leave school to go to work even though she’s been admitted to higher education; she’s smart enough, but can’t afford the clothes, books or tuition. Instead, she begins working as a day maid for the local clergyman and his family, then moves on to working in a laundry. Finally, she follows her mother’s footsteps and goes “into service” or becomes a full time, live in domestic servant.

At first, Margaret is nervous, fearful, and always putting a foot wrong. But who wouldn’t when the rules seemed so arbitrary and stupid? Honestly, I don’t think I would have been able to put up with that kind of work for one day, let alone one minute. Margaret works as a kitchen maid, which you’d think means she is in the kitchen all day helping the cook, right? Nope. Not only does she have to clean the kitchen, clean the dishes and pots and pans, and do a zillion other things, she has to blacken the rich people’s shoes, or polish their shoes each morning. I can’t believe that; every morning? My parents were sticklers for polished shoes, but we only had to polish them once a week, on Saturday night so that they would be sparkling for church on Sunday. I’d wear the same shoes to school all week, then back they went to our basement on Saturday night for polishing again.

But not for the wealthy in Margaret’s post World War I society. She polishes the boots and shoes for the family, several pairs per person since the ladies of the house change their outfits and shoes several times a day, and sends them back up. The maid returns. “Oh no, miss, this won’t do,” she says, “You have to polish the instep.”

“The what?” Margaret asks, dumbfounded because she’s never heard of anything so stupid in her life.

Yes, not only does she have to polish the BOTTOM of the shoes but IRON THE LACES.  Every. Day.

I’d go mad if I had to do that kind of work.

Margaret’s story is told in a dry, merciless tone with flashes of humor and wit woven throughout. While there are some kind and generous employers, most treat their servants like they’re stupid, unfeeling brutes, providing them with little in the way of comfort. The restrictions imposed on the servants were also unreal, including a curfew, rules about who they could socialize with and who they could not, and more.

Eventually, Margaret bluffs her way into a cook’s position, one of the most coveted positions among the servants, and finds a husband, and leaves domestic service. She returns to school at age 50 and studies independently, taking college-level courses in philosophy, art and other subjects because they interest her, and she eventually earns an advanced degree.

She writes about the changes in the lives of servants, and shows us the changes in the manor houses that she sees throughout the years. Although many of the wealthy are pitiable, it is hard to feel pity for some of them as seen through Margaret’s eyes. They’re cheats, skinflints, and morally uptight people with a supercilious air that lives on well after them in Margaret’s dry prose.

This is a short book, but a good read if you enjoy memoirs or period-style books. I purchased my copy through a catalog, but if you click on the picture at the top of this post or the link, it will take you to Amazon, where you can buy a copy via my affiliate link. I receive a little commission on the sale which does not affect your price. Thanks.

Below Stairs: 4 1/2 stars out of 5. Recommended.

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