Title: Below Stairs
Author: Margaret Powell
Publisher: Pan books (Macmillan Publishers Limited)
Original publication in: 1968
This is an 2011 paperback edition.
Date read: July 2nd 2013
Below Stairs is a short (around 200 pages) memoir or a very long essay of a woman who was born in 1907 to a poor family and had to work from a tender age of 13. It is also famous for having inspired the TV series, Downton Abbey.
Admittedly, my own interest in this book and the era stems from Downton Abbey. I was sucked right into the world that I didn’t know existed, the division of “upstairs” and “downstairs”, or, as Mrs. Powell puts it, “Them” and “Us”.
But because I have watched the first two seasons of Downton Abbey, I was able to understand what was meant by and what was the difference between butler, housekeeper, Lady’s maid, housmaid, parlourmaid, scullery maid (a.k.a. kitchen maid), footmen, valet, chauffeur and cook. Some of them are pretty self-explanatory (the last two), but the others, well, aren’t.
Margaret Powell (then Langley) started as kitchen maid as she did not want to become a parlourmaid or a housemaid or work in nursery as these jobs required sewing and Margaret was terrible at mending clothes. But let’s take few steps back first.
The title, the cover, and the description below the title “The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid” all suggest that this book will be filled with her time at domestic service. And majority of it is. But really, Below Stairs is a short autobiography that reads like annecdotes from her childhood, adolescence (in the middle of which she was already in service) and adulthood strung together.
The book opens with her childhood and how, as the second child out of seven and the eldest girl, she had to take care of her younger siblings and help out in housework. The family was poor, but her parents were warm people and the siblings were never bored. Even back then (or especially back then) the division between poor kids and rich kids (kids of the gentry) was severe. But the Langley kids never cared much, collecting jam jars and horse manure to earn money so they could scrape together the entry price for the circus.
At 13, Margaret is finished with elementary school education but even though she is scholarship-worthy, she has to break off her education in order to work as money is ever so tight. By this time the family has endured and survived the First World War, and the situation is grim. So she works odd jobs (a dozen of them) in the first year, and when she hits 14, she works at the local laundry, and when she’s 15, she goes into domestic service as kitchen maid.
Margaret Powell tells her experiences with various families first as kitchen maid and later as cook with humor and simple sentences of a storyteller. She does not flinch to offer up her opinion, and she was very modern for a woman in that era, several decades ahead of her time.
Remember when Gwen wanted to become a secretary and everyone looked startled and Miss O’Brien even said: “What’s wrong with being a housemaid?”
I have no way of knowing, but taking Mr Carson’s pride and honor as a butler (as well as Mr Moffat’s from the book) and the indignation of a fellow servant over hearing her mister and mistress criticized, I’d take a shot at guessing that some people thought it was natural to have this kind of divison and were grateful for their work. Many others, while they bemoaned their fate, were resigned to do anything about the system because they were doing what they were paid to do – even if it meant being treated like you didn’t exist.
Margaret is different. From the very beginning, she notices and questions this gap that anyone refuses to cross over or fill up. She demands the equal standing between employer and employee. She says, not without bitterness,
“That way they [the “Them”] called it ‘looking after the servants’, taking an interest in those below. They didn’t worry about the long hours you put in, the lack of freedom and the poor wages, so long as you worked hard and knew that God was in Heaven and that He’d arranged for it that you lived down below and laboured, and that they lived upstairs in comfort and luxury, that was all right with them.” (Below Stairs, p. 76)
“Employers didn’t want to hear that kind of thing. That was bolshevism. ‘How dare one of the lower classes criticize the upper classes!’ Girls like me who they considered came from poverty-stricken homes should be glad to work in a large house with food and warmth.” (p. 166)
The work of a kitchen maid was a lot harder than it looked in the TV show, and it is quite different an experience to look at the whole affair from the point of view of a servant. The degradation of having to put what your mistress wants on a silver tablet (never directly hand-to-hand!), the prejudice of people assuming you were illiterate and the ignorance of people who assume you are happy working five-thirty a.m. to late into the night, doing works that should be done by at least six people all alone.
Margaret Powell was an interesting person, who would have thrived in today’s society. At the end of her book she tells us how she got married to a decent enough man to get out of the service and had three children, but from her tone I gather she wasn’t very happy with her choice. I mean, it was definitely better than staying in service, but she wasn’t really in love with her husband (she openly admits it – “I wasn’t madly in love, but I cared about him, which I thought was a good basis to get married on.” (p. 193) and soon, with three children in five years, he was having difficulty supporting them all. So Margaret did some cooking here and there for family events. Then the Second World War hits, which must have been difficult for her and many other people.
She later began attending evening lessons at college on various subject – philosophy, history, literature and so on, finally and slowly fulfilling her wish at education. She passed her O-level exams (equivalent to secondary school diploma) at age of 58. She is – was, as she passed away in 1984 – a remarkable woman.
After WW2, and even before that, changes begin to take place in terms of domestic service. The staff is treated well, like an extended family, and while there were older people who pined at the way things were “back then”, things had definitely changed.
There is one insight I am particularly grateful for because I couldn’t quite figure out why (apart from the lack of birth control) poor people have so many babies when they know they can’t afford to feed another mouth. Margaret Powell answers, “You see that was the only pleasure poor people could afford. It cost nothing – at least at the time when you were actually making the children. You could have babies forevermore. […] The fact that it would cost you something later on, well, the working-class people never looked ahead in those days. They didn’t dare. It was enough to live for the present.” (p. 3)
I’d like to have Margaret’s honest statement the last words: “I don’t particularly envy rich people but I don’t blame them. They try and hang on to their money, and if I had it I’d hang on to it too. Those people who say the rich should share what they’ve got are talking a lot of my eye and Betty Martin; it’s only because they haven’t got it they think that way. I wouldn’t reckon to share mine around.” (p.209)