Books

Below Stairs – Margaret Powell

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!

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4 thoughts on “Below Stairs – Margaret Powell

  1. I read this book way back in the 1970s and then it was Upstairs Downstairs which was all the rage. As you say, it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Mind you it amazes me nowadays how snobby nannies can be, yes I’ve met a few, and you would think the house they work in actually belongs to them!

  2. I read this when it first came out too and remember thinking it was a bit ‘whiny’, can’t remember exactly why but probably because of what you’ve pinpointed, that it lacked depth.

  3. Somehting similar hwich is actually written by the author is Monica Dickens One pair of hands – I think you’d enjoy that. It gives an interesitng insight into the life of a cook-general by a woman who later became a well known author. I quite enjoyed the Margaret Powell books but for what they were – I read them years ago before any Downtown Revival!!

  4. Many people today do not seem to realise just how tough things were for servants in the 20’s and before. My grandparents and great grandparents were all servants and farm and factory workers. I was born and lived in a very working class area of London. I am now 65. There was much bitterness and resentment towards those who employed servants. In those days, as a servant you did not have “insight.”This is a modern luxury. Servants were too busy working very long hours, trying to survive, and living with being treated as a commodity, like horses. Margaret Powell conveys this very well, and her writing mirrors the opinion and attitude of most of the people I knew when young. (By the way, Monica Dickens was a very upper class girl. She was a debutante . She was great granddaughter to Charles Dickens.)Not quite the same as being a scullery maid with little education. I have read both Monica Dicken’s book and Margaret Powell’s. Downton Abbey is indeed glamorous. However, most servants ,according to my ancestors, were nowhere near as close emotionally to their employers as the staff at Downton, alas. It’s a fascinating business.

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