Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, by Margaret Powell
Every once in a while I indulge myself in reading about the lives of English gentry and pseudogentry, whether it is reading the novels of Jane Austen or of P.G. Wodehouse. This particular book, however, is not a novel written from the point of view of the gentry themselves, but is a small and biting (and also rather humorous) memoir written by a clever kitchen maid about her experiences in domestic service, a state she was able to escape through marriage, preserving her own sense of dignity and angry sense of humor despite her servile status.
What makes Ms. Powell’s memoir so worthwhile in a larger sense is that the popularity of her account, which took place at a time when domestic servants were already a thing of the past except for the highest of elites, managed to inspire two major British efforts at understanding “how the other half lives” among the servants of the elites. There is a lot of information to be gained here about how elites often expose themselves and their associates to blackmail through their blindness to the rational capacity of their servants and through their blind trust in those who serve them. Powell has a mostly tolerant view of the eccentricities of her various employers, including one who liked to twirl his fingers around the rollers of domestic servants late at night (while his wife boinked men forty years younger than she), though she is particularly fierce about the problem of references, which were critical in getting domestic service jobs. Ironically enough, the author’s sanguine hopes that such days of the importance of reference were part of the past appears not to have reflected reality, given the vital importance of references in the contemporary workplace.
Among the most poignant of the author’s discussions is the way in which she talks about her own impoverished childhood, the role of superficial religion in the lives of those who were not particularly religious (the author cannot be judged as a moralist in any sense of the word), and how her ambitions for her own education and education for her children caused complications. She is sensitive both to how she was denied educational opportunities in her youth because of her family’s poverty (and the shame of having to depend at times on charity), as well as to the fact that her poverty made life difficult on her sons, who were scholarship students at a grammar school for more elite children. Having faced these difficulties myself, I was quite sympathetic with the author’s own discussion, recognizing our common struggles for dignity and opportunity despite the challenges of life.
Those who are fans of the twilight era of the elites, as servants began to demand greater respect and dignity and decent wages, which made owning servants less appealing for most would-be masters and mistresses, will find much to enjoy here. There is a certain romance in bygone eras, and this book is a useful tonic to the laments of aristocrats about how people were more subservient (i.e. respectful) in the good old days. This book, by providing the point of view of an ambitious and articulate kitchen maid, reminds us of how much the deference of others was abused by those who held economic and social power, and reminds us why that society no longer exists, lest we grow too nostalgic about our imagined pasts. At about 200 pages of humorous and bitingly sarcastic texts, this book is the sort of thing that will someday be written by our own contemporaries about corporate culture today.