Caren's Reviews > Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey"

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell
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Mar 06, 12

bookshelves: adult-nonfiction
Read in March, 2012

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which has apparently been reissued due to current interest in "Downton Abbey". (The book was originally published in 1968.)The author, who lived from 1907 -1984, gives a pretty clear picture of life for Britian's working poor in the early part of the 20th century. She left school at thirteen, even though she had won a scholarship to continue. Her parents would have had to provide books and clothing for her, and with so many other children in the family, it was simply understood that this was not possible. After she lost a job working in a laundry, at the age of fifteen, she went into service. She tells in great detail what this job was like. Her goal during those years was to "snaffle" (her word) a delivery boy and get married. She certainly didn't want to marry someone else who was in service; her goal was to escape that life. She began as a kitchen maid and worked her way up to cook. She has told this story with a wry sense of humor, but the injustices of her situation are not glossed over. Telling this story years later, as an older woman, she still remembers the disdain with which the lady of the house takes a newspaper from her with the admonishment that in future, nothing should come directly from her hands, but be presented on a salver. The author's personality shines through her words. I loved the little idioms she used (such as "it's all my eye and Betty Martin"), and had to look up their meanings. Here is a very intelligent woman who educated herself by reading, something which apparently astonished some of her employers (and even a more sympathetic employer). Here is an excerpt from pg.206-7:
'You must treat things better, Margaret', she said. 'Don't you love good objects?' 'No, I don't, Mrs. Schwab,' I said. 'To me, they are just material things; I have an affinity with G.K. Chesterton who wrote about the malignity of inanimate objects,' I said, 'and I think they are malign because they take up so much of my time, dusting, polishing, and cleaning them. Look at that vase, I said, that you say is worth a hundred pounds, if that was to drop on the floor and break it would just be three or four worthless bits of china.' That set her back on her heels for a few seconds. 'I didn't know you read, Margaret,' she said....

Here is another excerpt from pg. 211:
"I'd love to be rich. There's nothing particularly beautiful about being poor,...Those people who say the rich should share what they've got are talking a lot of my eye and Betty Martin; it's only because they haven't got it they think that way. I wouldn't reckon to share mine around."

Yes, these are the memories of a feisty, likeable woman, and it is wonderful that she recorded her thoughts about this long ago world so that we may know what it was like.
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Michele Brenton I wondered about that! I remember reading this in the late 70s and thought I'd gone gaga when I saw it had been published in 2012.


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