January 2012

Tina Cosgrove

nonfiction

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir that Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey by Margaret Powell

I freely admit, without shame, that I am a BBC costume drama addict. Corsets, crinoline, clipped British accents, the strained politeness between upper crust and working class: I love it all. The latest BBC offering, Downton Abbey, has not only garnered a number of nominations and awards in its two-year run, but became an overnight success on both sides of the pond. Millions tune in every Sunday evening to watch the WWI drama unfold, cheering for Lady Mary and Mathew (or not), hoping that Anna and Mr. Carson will finally sort things out, and silently (or not) boo Thomas and Ms. O'Brien as they manipulate and torment the other characters. Thus, as a self-professed super fan, how could I resist Margaret Powell's 1968 memoir Below Stairs -- the inspiration for two iconic BBC productions -- detailing her time "in service" during the early part of the twentieth century?

Powell, born in 1907, begins her story with recollections of her childhood in Hove, a coastal town a little over fifty miles due south of London. Her family was poor; her mother worked as a "char woman" (house cleaner) and her father was an odd-jobs man. The family, by Powell's recollection, survived mostly on their mother's income and charity. It was a lean upbringing, but not an unhappy one. The family lived frugally on stews and lesser cuts of meats, moved frequently as funds waxed and waned, and wore holes in their shoes. However, she recalls Hove of the early twentieth century as a peaceful and safe place where children played unencumbered in the streets and parks, amused themselves with a visit to the country farms mere minutes outside the town limits, or caught a seaside show -- usually a singing act -- down at the beach. And let's not forget the yearly circus!

As all childhoods must, however, so too does Powell's come to an end. At age thirteen, despite winning a scholarship to continue her studies, Margaret left school to work in order to support her family. She briefly follows in her mother's footsteps as a housekeeper, then as a clerk in a sweets shop, and then into a job in the local laundry. Finally, with her mother's help, fifteen-year-old Margaret secures a position "in service" as a kitchen maid, the lowliest of all servants.

The bulk of the memoir recounts events in various households in which Powell worked, her rise from maid to cook, and her desperation to end her life in service (which she intends to accomplish via marriage). Some of her employers, such as Lord and Lady Dowell, are solicitous and take great pains to make their staff feel comfortable and appreciated. While other employers give sensible Christmas presents, the Dowells gave their help thoughtful and often expensive gifts such as silk underwear (which is not as creepy as it sounds). Others are stingy, providing the bare necessities and nothing more. One such employer, Mrs. Hunter-Jones, provided her servants with nothing but chaff (straw) filled mattresses to sleep upon. One family in particular, the Bishops, took no pains to hide what Margaret calls "deviant behavior" from the help. Powell's portrayal of her employers is honest but not salacious; there are no hidden skeletons (real or imagined) to drag into the light. Her fellow servants receive the same treatment. When Agnes, an under-parlor maid, becomes pregnant by her mistress's nephew, Margaret keeps the young woman's secret as long as she can. Eventually the young woman is dismissed. However, because of the large sum bestowed on the maid at her dismissal, it becomes clear to Powell that the lady of the house is aware of the child's parentage and is taking pains to cover any potential scandal. This, perhaps amongst all instances of injustice Powell observes, sticks foremost in her memory as an indicator not only how the upper class views the lower (as replaceable cogs in a larger machine), but also how easy it was for the master to manipulate the servant.

The last portion of the book focuses on Powell's life post-servitude, after she's found a suitable man to marry -- one who she admits she doesn't love but is fond of -- and settles into married life. However, her domestic bliss is disrupted when WWII breaks out and her husband is conscripted into the RAF. Margaret is left to fend for herself and turns to the only thing she's known: life in "the service." Only this time, with everyone suffering financial straits brought on by the economy of WWII, Powell works as a temporary hire versus a live-in cook. Her life in this period very acutely mirrors her childhood: she is poor (though she quickly points out that most everyone -- even the rich -- were living much "poorer" at this time) and she must rely on charity. The one difference, perhaps, is that Powell goes to great pains to make sure her children remain enrolled in a good school, populated largely by children of wealthier families. Powell admits that, in retrospect, her desire to educate her children in this manner may have visited an injustice upon them as it exposed them to elitism in ways far more vicious than in her own childhood.

Throughout it all, Powell pointedly makes the reader acutely aware of class divisions within English society. Her childhood memories are peppered with visions of the special treatment well-to-do children vacationing in Hove, received from local vendors' and nannies' stern warnings to "come away at once" when the wealthy children wandered too close to Powell's type. In addition to Agnes's story, Margaret remembers two elderly maids, Violet and Lily, forced to work well into their retirement years because a former employer, despite a promise to do so, forgot to write them into the will (this, it turns out, was not an isolated incident as many employers "forgot" to write long suffering servants into wills). Her children's treatment and subsequent embarrassments at school becomes another example of class division. However, throughout it all, Powell insists that she is not embittered by her tenure in domestic service. Nor, she insists, does she particularly blame the rich for being rich; rather, she admits that she does envy them in the way that people who have not envy those who have. Because of the carefully structured (though sometimes stilted) narrative and the way in which Powell both sympathizes and criticized rich and poor equally, I believe her.

The voice of this memoir is reminiscent of an elderly relative -- perhaps a great-grandmother -- telling watered down stories of her youth. That is to say, the narrative voice of the book is not as refined as modern day authorial voices. Nor does Powell condescend to divulge her former employer's dirty little secrets or luxuriate in the below-stairs drama as depicted in those much beloved BBC costume dramas. This, however, should not detract from the pleasure of reading Powell's story. Her memory is clear and vivid, and her astute observations regarding social hierarchy are all too similar to modern commentary on classism. As such, this book is an important window through which to observe a working class person's take on the issues of working-class people.   

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey by Margaret Powell
St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 978-1250005441
224 pages