The first thing I was shown before I sat down and had my tea was a list of the kitchen maid’s duties. When I looked at this list I thought they had made a mistake. I thought it was for six people to do.
Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir
(St. Martin’s Press, 2012)
Author: Margaret Powell
My dear fellow Downton Abbey addicts – er, aficionados -enduring the long wait until January for our next fix – er, opportunity to apply our excellent taste – this book may serve to take the edge off your cravings. After all, Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey (and writer of Gosford Park), writes of Margaret Powell: “Her memories, funny and poignant, angry and charming, haunted me until, many years later, I made my own attempts to capture those people for the camera. I certainly owe her a great debt.”
The book is not a new one – it was originally published in 1968 – but it has been reissued in hardcover in honor of Downton Abbey (and of the new Upstairs, Downstairs). Powell, who became a kitchen maid at age 15 in 1922, paints vivid pictures of life “below stairs” at a time when class structures that had been stable for well over a century were beginning an upheaval that would empty servants’ halls and airless attic bedrooms, eliminate the kitchen maid and eventually usher in the dishwasher and the decorative kitchen. She writes candidly about the sharp unfairness she experienced when she compared the life of her employers to that of their servants – or that of her parents and siblings, and about the gratitude that it was assumed she felt for work, a roof over her head, and food in her stomach. Even if it was (literally) the leftovers from her employers’ table.
Fair warning – sexual innuendos crop up from time to time throughout the book, enough that though I know that the subject of the book would have appealed to me enormously as a nine-year-old, it’s not a book I would hand to my nine-year-old self to read.
Postscript especially for Downton Abbey fanatics: Just making sure that you are aware that the version shown on PBS cut minutes here and there that were broadcast in the BBC version (running estimate is that ~45 min. got cut from Season 1 for the US). Which is why the Original UK Edition Season 1 and Season 2 DVD sets are on my birthday wishlist.
A taste of the book:
And as for domestic servants having aspirations to rise above the basement, such a thing was incredible to them. Even Lady Downall was the same in some respects. I remember asking her if I could borrow a book from her library to read, and I can now see the surprised look on her face. She said, ‘Yes, of course, certainly you can, Margaret,’ adding, ‘but I didn’t know you read.’ They knew you breathed and you slept and you worked, but they didn’t know you read. Such a thing was beyond comprehension. They thought that in your spare time you sat and gazed into space, or looked at Peg’s Paper or the Crimson Circle. You could almost see them reporting you to their friends. ‘Margaret’s a good cook, but unfortunately she reads. Books, you know.’ (p. 167)
Links to other reviews of the book:
- “What the Help Really Saw” by Elizabeth Lowry (Wall Street Journal)
- Book Review by Martin Rubin (Washington Post)
- Book Review (Kirkus Reviews)
If this book sounds appetizing, you might also like: