Before reading Margaret Powell’s book Below Stairs I think it is prudent to note that the book was first published in 1968. And although the same comments in reference to her looking back, e.g. ‘it would be different now’ still applies, some 30 years had only passed since these real life events had happened. If you pick up the book now you are reading these reflections then note it is some 70 years ago.
Powell gives us a VERY brief overview of life in Hove, as a small child in a poor working class family, where there was no money but plenty of warmth and connection with each other. Through to her progression out of that life as a kitchen maid and then cook, her obvious outward ambition.
However, there is no depth to any of the recollections and if anything is becomes merely a passage of how the servants were the underdogs by them “upstairs” and called “skivves” by their contemporaries. Powell was forthright in her opinion and manner and certainly did not like to think she was being treated badly. Ironically enough she seemed to always be suspicious when she was treated as more than a servant by at some of the houses she worked in.
This book is ideal for those who perhaps know nothing or very little about servants in early 20th century Britain. If like me you think you are going to get a more in depth insight into servants then you will be sadly disappointed.
Trying not to sound too cynical, I am sure, in fact I know this book was rereleased because of the UK (and further afield) sudden love for all things Downton Abbey – esque. In fact there is a flash (not sure of the correct technical term) on the front cover of the book claiming anyone who enjoyed it would like this book.
To be honest and I know Downton Abbey is fictional and glamourised. I learnt more from that than this book.
Although I have no doubt that Margaret Powell was a force to be reckoned with it was a shame not to learn more about tha numerous places she worked in more detail. I was not expecting any sort of “dishing the dirt” but as I mentioned in my review a bit more depth. She seemed to look down her nose at everyone regardless of who they were or how they featured in the social class structure. In fact she was fully aware that those above would have their own observations “…a good cook, but unfortunately she reads. Books, you know.”
Interestingly it was not written by Powell herself and she obviously had a large amount of help as we skit through her life. I found the same with a book I read last year (2011) My Lady’s Maid by Rosina Harrison, not enough substance for me.
I think I will be very wary of such books in the future and at least do my research before taking a peek behind the scenes of any sort of life. However, I remain fascinated by the “them and us” situations as I know in days gone past the job I do was very much a “them and us” in fact some days it still is!