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

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  11,575 ratings  ·  1,532 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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3.54  · 
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 ·  11,575 ratings  ·  1,532 reviews

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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
Apr 30, 2019 rated it it was ok
Overall: A memoir about the life of a kitchen maid turned cook in service at some of the great houses throughout London. Some interesting stories but the whole book had an overall negative tone 2/5 or 4/10

The Good: There was just enough good in this book to keep me going. I loved Downton Abbey and the positives in this book was learning more about the life of being in service in some of these great houses. Even in the show, Daisy (the kitchen maid) was one of my least favorite characters and com
Kaethe Douglas
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
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
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.
Apr 24, 2013 rated it liked it
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
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
Dec 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2012, nonfiction
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
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
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!
Aug 03, 2019 rated it liked it
this memoir from margaret powell, a kitchen maid in the 1920s, who eventually worked her way up to become a cook, was kind of dry and a little bit boring but what made it somewhat interesting was the contempt she had for “them.”

“them” being the people Upstairs. Madam and family.

also, the contempt she (and apparently the other staff too) had for the Nanny, who would come down to the kitchens uninvited to state what meals the children wanted and what she wanted for herself. (and god forbid those
Jamie Collins
This is a memoir about the years Margaret Powell spent as a domestic servant in England in the 1920’s. It supposedly served as the inspiration for the TV shows Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. It’s fairly interesting, although Powell mostly worked in smaller households and she only briefly alludes to the elaborate hierarchy found below stairs in large establishments. (I had Gosford Park in mind.)

This is written in first person, in a conversational style. Although Powell apparently publish
Melissa Prange
Jan 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
With the present success of the British television series Downton Abbey, St. Martin's Press has re-released the classic memoir, Below Stairs. In Below Stairs, Margaret Powell recounts her career in domestic service and vividly recreates the world in which she lived.

As a child, Margaret Powell hoped to become a teacher, but her family was poor and there was no public assistance to pay for her education. Instead, she entered the workforce at the age of thirteen. For two years, she worked a series
Apr 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
Lately I have this literary downfall. I can't seem to resist books off lists with titles like "Read This If You're Obsessed With Downton Abbey." Sometimes this comes back to bite me (Loving, I'm looking at you) but more often than not I really enjoy the books. Below Stairs is one such book - a memoir of a woman who worked as a kitchen maid, and eventually a cook, in the great houses of England during the 1920s and '30s. And let me say, Margaret Powell tells it like it is. The unfairness of life ...more
Elizabeth of Silver's Reviews
What a delightful book even though the subject of being a kitchen maid in a wealthy household was far from delightful. The author had a sense of humor that made the book fast paced, funny, and interesting.

This book was the memoir of a "real" kitchen maid. It definitely was not a pleasant life, but the author kept the book light and factual. The household staff would work from sunup to sunset with no conveniences that we have today in the kitchen or for cleaning to a shine.
The staff would have t
Jul 07, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
1968 memoir from a former kitchen maid-turned-cook, which has renewed interest because apparently the director of Downton Abbey has used it for reference. It's mildly interesting, since Powell worked in a variety of situations, but she's also fairly grumpy about it. Lots of "things were different in my day," comments, kind of like listening to an oldtimer telling you how much harder life was for them. Undoubtedly true, but a whole book of grump gets tiresome. She talks a lot about wanting to get ...more
Dec 22, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Received this ARC as a First Reads winner. Before I read this, my knowledge of domestic service came mostly from reading Anne Perry's Thomas & Charlotte Pitt mysteries (I love their feisty maid Gracie!) as well as other period fiction. It was enlightening to read something from a domestic servant's point of view. I found Margaret Powell's varied experiences to be both funny and sad.

Before I read "Below Stairs:....", I read other reviews and many of them commented on the author's bitterness.
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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.
“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.” 11 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.” 8 likes
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