It took me far too long to get around to watching Downton Abbey. I’m now halfway through the second season and I can’t get enough of the luxurious lives of the Crawleys, the servants who work for them, and the turmoil of the changing times that affects them all in WWI-era Great Britain. Before I watched the show, I read the memoir of a real kitchen maid who served in the great houses that Downton Abbey is modeled after. The book jacket’s description reads, “The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.” Writer and producer Julian Fellowes credits this memoir with helping him to develop the relationships in his creation of Downton Abbey. This fun and informative autobiography was published in 1968; in it, Margaret Powell tells her story of growing up in impoverished England and her employment with wealthy families as a kitchen maid and eventually as a cook. She relates her tale with frank and humorous charm; the result is an honest picture that is part exposé, part reflection on the way things were “in those days,” and part plucky commentary on a life of diverse experience.
Margaret Powell was born Margaret Langley in Hove, England, to poor but loving parents in 1907. One of many children, Margaret was the eldest girl, so a lot of the responsibility for helping to raise the younger children and support the family fell on her. When she was thirteen, she left school and entered into domestic service as a kitchen maid. She describes her experiences working with several different employers, as well as the tenacity that helped her work to continually improve her station in life. Throughout her career, she moved from her job as kitchen maid (the lowest position in the household) to cook. Her book also discusses her eventual marriage which allowed her to leave service to only working at occasional dinner parties for the wealthy. Despite the low social status she was born into, Powell always worked to gain better positions and continue her own intellectual development by reading and later taking classes once she left service.
Powell writes in a conversational way, addressing the reader directly with phrases such as, “mind you,” and describing the servants’ common responsibilities and daily lives with “you” sentences: “…after all you had to work with the servants. Not only work with them, you had to live with them, and almost sleep with them. You shared rooms, so it was up to you to keep on good terms with them. They were your whole life” (p. 74). By inviting the reader to consider the servants’ point of view this way, Powell asks her reader to enter her world more completely. Her frank writing style that’s laced with acerbic wit and rhetorical questions make the reading experience similar to what I imagine it would be like to sit down with Powell and chat over tea. I’m glad I read this book before I watched Downton Abbey because I felt as though I gained a better understanding of what the servants’ lives were like than I would have if I had just watched the somewhat idealized portrayal of their lives in the show.
The Crawleys treat their servants as if they are friends and confidantes, if not social equals, but Powell’s book suggests a different picture. Her book is not all sensation or shock; she describes some of her employers as gracious, others as tyrants. She tells in full detail the difficult labor and long hours she and the other servants endured for little pay–she spent hours scrubbing pots and silver, and one employer even requested she iron their shoelaces! Still, her story is one that seeks to share the truth and her personal thoughts and experiences and not to express pure discontent. Instead, her memoir looks at the good and bad in her life and expresses contentment with her choices. It’s a fun and breezy read, and a good choice for anyone who’d like to hear more from the unheard voices in the great and romantic histories of England we often read of or see portrayed onscreen.
My rating: Liked it (3 out of 5 stars)
Acknowledgments: I read the St. Martin’s Press edition of Below Stairs by Margaret Powell, copyright 1968. ISBN 978-1-250-00544-1
Sources: Photo insert from pbs.org: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/downtonabbey/season2_characters_daisy.html