Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” by Margaret Powell
I am a fan of British drama. I have enjoyed many British TV shows as well. One of my favorite is Lark Rise to Candleford. We watched a bit of Downton Abbey, but was turned off by the soap operatic nature of the stories. It did lead us to the delightful book Below Stairs.
Margaret Powell “entered service” at the age of 13. Even though she had won a scholarship to continue her schooling, their family couldn’t afford to not have her work for another five years. When her father was drafted into World War I, the destitute situation of the family required she leave home and begin working keeping house for others. She worked six hours each day, seven days a week for 10 shillings, which if my calculations are correct, would be worth about $1.20/hour today. The work was hard and unappreciated.
Powell bounced around from small job to job until she was fifteen and became a kitchen maid. From there, she worked her way up to cook over years of practice and buying a cookbook. Her stories and descriptions of life in service describe the conditions and difficult life. It is no wonder this book became the basis for British drama, looking back at the way the “other half” lived in Victorian England.
Even though Mrs. Powell became a very good cook, it is obvious she has a knack for story telling. Below Stairs is a page turner, packed with story after story, some tragic, most amusing, of life in service. Her views on the gentry were quite opinionated and deservedly so. Most families she worked for were quite harsh in the treatment of those who kept their houses running. A few were quite kind, such as the house that was the basis for Downton Abbey. The job was only three months while their regular cook was recovering from illness. They treated their staff well, giving them gifts at Christmas and even the day off. Most, however, did not treat the people who cared for them as much better than slaves.
After years of cooking for fancy parties and dinners for scores of people, Mrs. Powell eventually married and was able to leave service. It was rather ironic that she struggled to cook for her family, as none of the recipes she had created and mastered would fit into the family budget or her husband’s tastes. She continued to hire out to cook on occasion, but only for special events where extra help was required.
It was interesting to compare Mrs. Powell’s experiences in service as compared to the descriptions given by Bill Bryson in his book At Home, where he details the servants life as well. His descriptions were much harsher of the life, but I felt it matched quite well with those of Below Stairs. Had I lived at this time, I have little doubt I would probably have lived this life. While I enjoy reading about it, I certainly wouldn’t want to live it.