Book review: Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

In an age dominated by equality and feminism, it seems ironic that we have become addicted to stories about the long-vanished world of masters and servants.

By Pam Norfolk
Monday, 11th April 2011, 8:40 am

So, as fans of ITV’s hit series Downton Abbey chomp at the bit for the next instalment, the enthralling real-life tale of a 1920s kitchen maid could prove the perfect fix.

Margaret Powell, who died in 1984, might have been regarded as the household’s ‘lowest of the low’ but the feisty girl from Hove in Sussex possessed the indomitable spirit and undying ambition needed to rise above her station.

While she worked for ‘Them’ upstairs – the ‘enemy’ who overworked and underpaid their staff – Margaret was one of ‘Us,’ the downstairs servants whose impassive expressions and respectful demeanours often hid scorn and derision.

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Her revealing and entertaining story of life below stairs was first published to instant success in 1968 and now a new generation can enjoy her forthright and fascinating memoir.

Born in 1907, Margaret was a rebel, a bright girl from a working-class family who won a scholarship at the age of 13 and wanted desperately to be a teacher but was forced into service by her family’s straitened circumstances.

As the eldest girl of seven children, it was her job to do all the chores while her mother worked but she never felt ill-used because in those days it was accepted as ‘the thing’.

After a year slaving in the local laundry, where the ironing room was something akin to Dante’s Inferno, 15-year-old Margaret took her first job as a live-in kitchen maid at a large house in Hove despite feeling that she was being put ‘in jail’.

Parted from her parents for the first time and faced with a list of duties that she thought was intended for six people, Margaret’s day began at 5.30am and included lighting fires, blackleading grates, cleaning fenders, flues and door brass, scrubbing steps and laying breakfast tables...all before 8am.

‘I felt that life couldn’t hold anything worse for me. I was in the lowest pit,’ she wrote.

Many of the tasks were a mystery to Margaret who had to learn that cleaning shoes and boots was not just a case of applying spit and polish but involved wiping down insteps and ironing laces.

From the start, she couldn’t help dwelling on the unfairness of life: ‘Why do you and I have to work in this dungeon with the barest of comforts while they have everything upstairs?’ she would ask cook.

But she was fighting a losing battle and it wasn’t all hard work and bitterness; there was the compensation of ‘larking around’ with the errand boys, observing a gentleman visitor with a penchant for stroking the housemaids’ curlers, visits to the cinema for a bit of ‘second-hand romance’ and strolls round Hyde Park when she moved to a new job in fashionable Knightsbridge in London.

During her years in service before she married, Margaret learned three golden rules – always keep on good terms with the other servants, hang onto your pride and ‘take no notice’ when ‘Them’ upstairs come over all high and mighty.

When her family had grown up, Margaret worked as a home help for many of the now struggling and decaying gentlewomen whose kitchens might once have been the ‘dungeons’ where she slaved as a kitchen maid.

Their upbringing had left them sadly unprepared for the new world order but she could not help admiring their continued resilience and zest for life.

Below Stairs brings to glorious life the toil and turmoil of domestic service in an era of deference and division. Witty, wise and wonderfully cynical, Margaret’s story is in a ‘class’ of its own.

(Pan, paperback, £6.99)