Non-Fiction Book Review – Below Stairs

  • Title: Below Stairs
  • Author: Margaret Powell
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 02/05/2014

I read the Google Play e-book version of this short and breezy memoir. The book has a unique style – breezy, fun, conversational, and not very linear. The organization of the book is loosely chronological, but she skips around, mentioning things like, “of course, once I was married…” etc.

The memoir is said to be the inspiration for both Upstairs, Downstairs, one of my favorite British drama series of all time, and Downton Abbey, which I’m currently watching on DVD; however, the novel is much more disorganized than either series and doesn’t have a sense of story. Not in the traditional sense of a novel. But then, it is a memoir – and the story of one’s life isn’t going to be nice and neat.

Powell’s book is full of contradictions, she describes in many ways, a horrible life – the object poverty of her family, her early life at school, where she did well and she even won a scholarship to “grammar” school but she ended-up leaving school at thirteen, to work to help support her family and because her parents couldn’t afford the other expenses of school. Powell’s opinions are full of contradictions – on one hand she enjoyed school, did well, and admires education. But at the same time, she seems to look down on those who employ her, especially if they were better educated. Perhaps she meant she didn’t like rich aristocrats who didn’t appreciate getting into good schools and universities, it’s not clear. (That would be the early 20th century equivalent of the “trust fund” kid who gets booted out of every boarding school.) But she also describes an early life of object poverty, yet seems to look down on the idea of unemployment insurance and government assistance. It’s an attitude I found strange.

Powell’s memoir is plainly written to gain sympathy for her and the nameless servants like her. But again, at times it’s hard to be sympathetic towards Powell when she has no sympathy towards others. At thirteen she goes to work, trying a number of short-term jobs, before at 14 taking a job as kitchen maid. A kitchen maid is one of the lowest jobs in a large household. But Powell is ambitious and hopes to become a cook. She learns on the job, becomes a cook, then moves from place to place, in general improving her lot. Eventually she decides that not only does she want to “leave service”, she wants to marry – but not another servant, because that would keep her in service. All this comes to pass.

Some of her biggest complaints seem either petty (she refuses to wear a hat in the kitchen – even today, cooks, chefs, sous-chefs, and anyone who works in a kitchen must wear a hat or hair net in the kitchen – for sanitary reasons. And seriously, when I’m doing major cooking I wear a bandana or kerchief on my hair to keep it out of my face and out of the food. So what’s the big deal?) or problems still seen today (she complains that as servants they were treated as sub-human or as invisible. I bet she could commiserate with today’s fast-food workers, supermarket cashiers, big box store clerks, or hotel staff). Towards the end of the book, she mentions a couple of households that were different, where her employers were quite kind.

Overall, it was an interesting book but not what I was expecting. There are apparently two more volumes and I will probably read them at some point.

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