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

3.55  ·  Rating details ·  10,967 Ratings  ·  1,498 Reviews
Brilliantly evoking the long-vanished world of masters and servants, Margaret Powell's classic memoir of her time in service is the remarkable true story of an indomitable woman who, though she served in the great houses of England, never stopped aiming high.

Brilliantly evoking the long-vanished world of masters and servants portrayed in Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downsta
Hardcover, 212 pages
Published January 3rd 2012 by St. Martin's Press (first published 1968)
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Jan 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
Do you watch Downton Abbey?

If you answered yes, congratulations, we can continue being friends. I'm currently obsessed with that show, and so when I was in Barnes and Noble last week browsing through the biography/memoir section (like I do) this caught my eye, and I was about to put it back when I noticed that the title was blaring MEMOIR THAT INSPIRED "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" AND "DOWNTON ABBEY" and the next thing I knew I bought it. So kudos to the marketing team behind this book, because they k
Feb 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
What a delightful book! I admit I was drawn to it because of its claim to have inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey," but I think I would have loved it regardless.

The writer was born in 1907 in Hove, England, and even though she was bright and had won a scholarship, her family was poor and she couldn't afford to go to school, so she started working at age 13. Her first domestic service job was as a kitchen maid, and she eventually worked her way up to cook, which was a prestigious
Apr 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
3.5 stars

This is a brisk and efficient book full of interesting observations on interwar British society from a working class perspective. Powell grew up in a poor family in Hove, a seaside town on the UK south coast very close to Brighton. That the working poor lived in dreadful conditions during the period is no surprise, but what struck me was Powell's praise of Hove, where during her childhood all the lawns were public space and filled with children of all classes playing (though generally n
When Powell was one of seven children, and pretty much starving, everything was better and had more flavor. Not like the rubbish you get nowadays (ie., 1968). She has a strong voice but lacks perspective on everything. She tells the reader that her parents could enjoy sexy times in privacy only when the kids were off at Sunday School (nine people in two or three rooms) but doesn't consider that information about birth control was suppressed by the church and the state at that time. She had to le ...more
It is a very informative book, especially for someone who likes to read historical fiction which take place in UK amongst upper class. The look from the house servant point of view is priceless. This memories opened my eyes to many aspects.

It is really hard to believe sometimes how people lived not such long ago. What they ate, how they made their dishes, how day cleaned a house and so on. (e.g.: there weren't fridges, nobody heard of something like a diet or healthy eating.)

Then, you have here
Kim A
Oct 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Very easy and enjoyable read. Loved how Margaret Powell didn't romanticize the jobs and roles of servants like many other books I've read. Also appreciated hearing the opinions she had in regards to feminism and the injustices of the poor as well as the plight of those in the servant industry in England

Wish it were a bit longer but am now waiting for her second book which is a sequel to this one.
I was surprised to find no mention of a ghost writer; because the style of the writing is very much 'as told'. That directness really does work well, because the reader is firmly put at the same level as the servants; and, boy, don't a number of the employers seem to inhabit some rarefied and distant plane!

Yes, one is left wishing that employers would be more considerate of the quality of life of their servants. But one can well see in Margaret Powell the dilemma to many: wondering how to be a h
Abril Camino
Bien como relato de una época y acercamiento a lo que era la vida del personal doméstico a principios del siglo XX. Pero la narración es flojísima y muy aburrida por momentos. Me ha costado mucho acabarlo.
Apr 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012-fodder
My gran could have written this book. It certainly sounded like her voice coming down through time! A fascinating first hand account of what life was like at the early part of the 19th century for so many bright, capable women. Choices were few and life was outlined almost from birth if you were born into a working-class family of uncertain means. My great grandfather, who served galantly in the war, raised three children in Paddington on a carman's wages.

My gran went into service as a laundry
Apr 24, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: biographical, history
At the conclusion of the book, Margaret Powell says "So despite what it may sound like, I'm not embittered about having had to go into domestic service." Readers would like to believe that but most of the contents and tone of the book can easily be understood as being the memoirs of an embittered domestic.

Fans of Downton Abbey and Berkeley Square may expect to discover tantalizing details of below and above stairs goings-on in this book but will be rather disappointed to learn that the dreary sl
Feb 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2013
What a contrast to read this right after Julia Child's "My Life in France." With her acerbic wit and keen eye for social injustice -- not to mention the intellectual perseverance that led her to finally take and pass her O-levels after her children were grown -- Powell was clearly a force to be reckoned with, "in service" and out. Yet the function of the British class system at the time -- she was born in 1907 to a hardscrabble family -- was to continually "put her in her place," in other words ...more
Feb 11, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Dal libro che si vocifera abbia ispirato la serie televisiva Downton Abbey mi aspettavo qualche cosa di più, lo ammetto.
E' un libro interessante che descrive la vita dei domestici che lavorano nelle case degli aristocratici degli anni trenta ma senza i dettagli che mi aspettavo di trovare. Parla principalmente solo della vita della protagonista mentre va a servizio e senza descrivere in maniera dettagliata in realtà niente. Di "loro", cioè dei suoi datori di lavoro, sappiamo poco o niente e Mar
Feb 25, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A scrivere questo memoir è una ragazza nata nel 1907 in una povera e numerosa famiglia di Hove, a sud di Londra. Costretta ad abbandonare gli studi perché non può permetterseli, Margaret va a servizio, prima come sguattera e poi come cuoca.
L’edizione Einaudi sottolinea come questo libro abbia ispirato la serie televisiva Downton Abbey, ma a dir la verità qui i saloni sfolgoranti che si menzionano in quarta di copertina sono visti solo di sfuggita. Margaret può parlare con certezza e proprietà so
Dec 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, 2012
I always enjoy these upstairs/downstairs-type of book. Maybe I was a maid in my previous life, I know I feel like one now! :)

The author has an easy, flowing narrative of her life growing up very poor, then working in service. It is told without any sort of resentment or entitlement. She and her family made do with what they had, did without or improvised. No whining here. It was a fascinating glimpse of those days gone by.

The maid and cook portion of the book was also interesting as the reader g
While I did enjoy learning about Downstairs life, it was rather a slow read for me. Margaret Powell did have some interesting stories in the book but most of the book seemed negative. Negative on not just being a servant but life it self. I see that the author wrote more books, maybe give another one a try. Overall, not a bad book but not something that really held my attention.
Lubinka Dimitrova
3,5 stars actually - I'm feeling generous today. Nothing too extraordinary, but it does gives the reader a glimpse into the life of the servants and partly of their masters. The author's perseverance to read books, to educate herself and to aim high was quite admirable, and probably this gives the book its not too simplistic writing style and interesting narrative. I feel though that it was somewhat superficial, in the sense that although I read it with interest, I did not feel quite engaged wit ...more
Feb 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2017
[...] she did give me quite a good reference, she didn't praise me up to the skies, but she said I was honest, hard working, and a good cook. What more could I expect?

Margaret Powell worked in domestic service from the age of 15 until she married and quit her service life after that. Like this passage from the book tells us, she was hard working, and that's what you will definitely see in this book. The story of a woman who worked in service and had to rely on her employers to survive.

I picked
Aug 27, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: uk, s-m
Non ci posso credere
I libri che parlano della vita della gente comune in altri momenti storici mi interessano, perché è facile immedesimarsi e fantasticare su vite che non sono la mia, ma avrebbero potuto esserlo. Lo studio della storia a scuola non è sufficiente a soddisfare la curiosità di una persona curiosa, ma anzi, alimenta la fiamma. Questo libro è stato di piacevole lettura, tuttavia non mi ha convinta molto. Si tratta delle memorie di una ragazzina del popolo nata nel 1907, andata andat
cristina c
Downton Abbey non c'entra niente; lì c'è una trama, succedono cose, qui al contrario si capisce come la vita di chi strofina il pavimento o lustra le pentole di rame sia senza storia.
Margaret Powell ricorda il suo passato di sguattera, promossa poi a cuoca, promossa infine a moglie e madre disamorata, come una serie di giorni, una serie di camere squallide, una serie di cucine nel seminterrato. Quando ogni tanto incontra qualche padrona più illuminata che offre una camera singola invece che in
While the book was enjoyable, I got the overall impression that Powell was somewhat bitter about her experiences as a domestic servant (kitchen maid and ultimately, a cook) even though she denies feeling that way. Powell admits that she had an inferiority complex and compensated by acting aggressively. I think that also meant she acted impulsively. There is unquestionably an 'us against them' attitude that comes across in her reminisces of downstairs life. Not that being a beckon-call domestic w ...more
This book inspired three TV series: Upstairs, Downstairs; Beryl's Lot; and Downton Abbey. I suspect that the Maisie Dobbs mystery series borrows from it too.

In a nutshell (with some spoilers): Thirteen-year-old girl wins scholarship, can't accept it because family needs her income, goes into domestic service, mostly hates it but soldiers on, leaves service to marry, and (decades later) becomes famous, beloved, and quite rich.

Words and expressions I learned:

pantechnicon: a furniture van

saxe blue
Stephen Arvidson
Feb 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
I don’t often read biographies or autobiographies, but the narrative flow of this book is so smooth and well-conceived, you’d almost swear that you were reading a novel rather than a candid memoir of a foregone world.

As a fan of Downton Abbey, I found this book to be a terrific companion to the series; it illuminates readers on both the societal strata of society of that era and the life experiences of a domestic servant. On the one hand, Below Stairs serves as a counterpoint to Downton Abbey's
Susan Peterson
Jan 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: library
The cover of the book compares Below Stairs to "Downton Abbey" and "Upstairs, Downstairs." In fact, the image of Daisy, the kitchen maid in "Downton Abbey" kept floating through my mind as I read. But what this book has that the two series don't is a closely wrought picture of the life and heart of a kitchen maid. We see images of young Margaret, new to service, polishing the front door brass until her hands swell with chillblains, only to be dragged in front of the mistress of the house for a d ...more
Divertente, non c'è che dire. Ovviamente il claim secondo cui abbia ispirato Downton Abby è totalmente falso. Qui abbiamo le memorie di una ragazza di campagna, di famiglia povera, che si vede costretta a fare la sguattera per sopravvivere. Il suo desiderio è passare a cuoca, e poi ancora quello di sposarsi e di smettere di stare a servizio. Ovvio che tra le famiglie per cui lavora ce ne saranno di più e di meno nobile, di più e di meno "illuminate", quelle che trattano la servitù come persone e ...more
May 23, 2012 rated it it was ok
Maybe I was expecting more scandal & more fraught interactions between the servants and the gentry, but this just fell flat. Even the poor under-parlourmaid who got knocked up by the nephew of the lady of the house wasn't too poignant. And when Margaret as Cook is serving & drops a potato down someone's décolletage, I expected everyone to erupt in a fiery wrath and for Margaret to be tragically out on the street within moments, but nothing too bad happens to her, other than getting calle ...more
An interesting little read but for all the hyped up description and allusions to links with Downton Abbey, Below Stairs is really nothing stand out. That's not to say that it's not worth a look but if it was inspiration for Downton Abbey, then it was a very loose inspiration. A vague idea. The events listed in the description take up at most a paragraph each so don't expect a brilliantly detailed expose. It didn't tell me any more than The Maid's Tale and that is exactly the problem with the ove ...more
May 05, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2012
First published in 1968 in Britian; first U.S. edition 2012. Written as if Margaret Powell was conversing off the cuff, this gives a glimpse of life in the strictly class-drive society of early 20th Century England. It was all "us," the serant class, vs. "them," the upper-class employers -- not that all the employers consciously looked down on the help, but that many they didn't even think of them as people or notice their presence in the room. You'll like Margaret's keen sense of observation, a ...more
Feb 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is like if Daisy wrote a diary but she were less naive and more entitled (as she should be).

Thanks to David for the recommendation!
Elena T.
Jan 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Libro autobiografico dell'autrice, prima sguattera, poi cuoca nell'Inghilterra degli anni Venti e Trenta del XX Secolo, pubblicato nel 1968 in Gran Bretagna. I ricordi della Powell hanno quindi lo scopo di far luce sul poco idilliaco il rapporto tra padroni e servitori nella statica società inglese. Cresciuta nel Sussex, a tredici anni aveva vinto una borsa di studio, ma, le precarie condizioni familiari, avevano costretto la Powell ragazza ad andare a fare la sguattera. Su e giù per le scale, a ...more
Graciela Cervantes aguilar
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Margaret Powell (1907 – 1984) was an English writer. Her book about her experiences in domestic service, Below Stairs, became a best-seller and she went on to write other books and became a television personality. Below Stairs was an impetus for Upstairs, Downstairs and the basis of Beryl's Lot, and is one of the inspirations of Downton Abbey.
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“I used to wonder why... Mum kept having babies... that was the only pleasure poor people could afford . It cost nothing--at least at the time when you were actually making the children. The fact that it would cost you something later on, well, the working-class people never looked ahead in those days.” 10 likes
“They knew that you breathed and you slept and you worked, but they didn’t know that you read. Such a thing was beyond comprehension. They thought that in your spare time you sat and gazed into space, or looked at Peg’s Paper or the Crimson Circle. You could almost see them reporting you to their friends. ‘Margaret’s a good cook, but unfortunately she reads. Books, you know.” 6 likes
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