Feb 17, 2014

Shoestring Reads: Below Stairs by Margaret Powell


Greetings Shoestringers! It has been a while since I've done a book review so I thought I best get on it. Thus far I have only reviewed reads obtained from my local library, a thrifty and fabulous source of entertainment. Shoestring Sally loves libraries! Bookworm that I am I typically have 3 books going at one time but Below Stairs by Margaret Powell is the one I just finished; since I often ponder the social and consumer aspects of our haves & have-nots society this classic memoir of life "in service" seemed tailor-made for Sally's literary microscope.

 


Margaret's Story & My Take:

Margaret Powell wrote several memoirs of her life in service at wealthy English households, first as a kitchen maid and then as a cook. Below Stairs is the first installment published in 1968, a time when Powell could reflect openly on the injustices servants suffered in the earlier half of the 20th century. She began working in 1921 at the age 14: her first job was in a laundry but she shortly began her life in service as a kitchen maid. Powell exposes in detail the lot of the English servant class --she was one of the first people to do so and her memoirs are credited as the main inspiration for the long-running television series Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. Her work had a tremendous effect on Downton creator Julian Fellowes, himself a member of the "Upstairs World". Perhaps that is why I was so shocked by the book.

A huge Downton fan I expected Powell's chronicle to be more quaint and cozy, because for all my (supposed) political savvy I had bought in to the romance of Downton Abbey and the warm fuzzies that so often exhibit themselves between the Upstairs and Downstairs classes (and no I don't mean the trysts-- but the simple kindness and respect shown to the servants). True, it is not all moonlight and roses at the Abbey but in contrast Powell's memoir was a dousing with cold water. Powell covers many households of all sorts in her book and it is only a couple times that the set-up resembles what you see in TV and movies: the comfortably-furnished servants' hall, the jolly workers capering about despite the long hours, and the endless cups of tea during the downtime. That was, according to Powell, the exception. The rule was drudgery, filth, exhaustion, and uncomfortable cast-off furniture for the servants' quarters. The rule was a psychological storm of resentment & resignation brewing below stairs, and the day-to-day grind of being regarded by your "betters" as subhuman, if you were regarded at all. Downton existed in doses, but was rarer than most think according to Powell. Growing up a child of privilege, Julian Fellowes has said Powell's stories haunted him until he had the chance to tell the servants' stories on film but he has still served up, by and large, what the modern viewer wants to believe: the cozy servants' hall and the employers' heartfelt concern. It made me realize that romanticism is not the depiction of lies as truth, but rather of the exception as the rule. 

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the book thoroughly and recommend it. Just be aware that it may not be quite what you think. In the end, there is much in Below Stairs to satisfy a variety of tastes.
People who will like this book:

  • Fans of programs like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs (just brace yourself for more realism).
  • Those interested in any of the following: social history, history of the UK and/or UK working classes, social justice, workers' rights, women's studies.
  • Cooks and/or students of historical cookery. In addition to the aforementioned socio-political content, there is a good bit of info on the set up and running of kitchens in wealthy English households, daily menus and recipes.

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