February 18, 2013

Below Stairs


I readily admit it: I acquired this book after seeing its subtitle.  I'm one of those many, many people who have found themselves enthralled by Downton Abbey--fascinated in equal measure by how truly awful some of the characters can be and by how enmeshed in its history the show is as a period piece.  Also, I'd be lying if I didn't say I also love watching for the marvelous wardrobes on display.


And of course, the dynamic of such a large house is absolutely fascinating as well: that in such a huge place, the aristocrats and the help live incredibly different lives simultaneously.  I recently attempted a different historical/biographical book that tied itself to Downton but I'm afraid that I've yet to make it all the way through.  It's about an artistocrat, and frankly, I put it down after three attempts because I just found it dead dull.  (In fairness, it may have been my mood.)

Margaret Powell's Below Stairs, however, drew me in.  She grew up in a large but poor family that never lived in a full house of their own, had to quit school to work, and eventually found herself going into service as a kitchen maid.

The descriptions of the some of the dishes that she assisted in making are simultaneously intriguing and nauseating, particularly if a reader stops to think about the sheer amount of food some of these households consumed at meals.  ('Them,' as the servants called them, had six to seven course meals once every day.)

Powell's life as a maid clearly wasn't easy, and the tasks she describes doing seem as though they were more than one person could manage.  But she managed them for the most part--not, however, without a bit of resentment.

Conversely, she also details the friendships she made while in service--and it would seem that as is the case in any job, liking her co-workers proved to make situations more tolerable.

Two things captivated me: first, the minutiae Powell details about life as a maid--interacting with employers, employees' and employers' expectations, the hours, how others viewed people who worked in service.  Secondly, Powell still seems nostalgic for these times in many ways--she wrote this memoir in the 1960s, when she was much older and felt that values like hard work were being lost.

She also has very distinctive opinions about the ratio of women to men, about how relationships between the sexes are conducted (then and now), and about education.  It's an interesting contradiction: she realizes that as time went on, she had more opportunities...but she's not entirely approving of other ways in which time changed.

All in all, though,  I'd say she achieved her stated goal of helping readers understand what her life as a maid was like. If she were alive, I think she'd be a fascinating person to converse with about the state of the world.  And of young people.  (I imagine she'd have all sorts of opinions.)

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