With the American broadcast of Downton Abbey, season 3, beginning tonight, readers can find a lively companion book in Margaret Powell’s 1968 memoir Below Stairs, published in the USA last year with the subtitle The Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. Powell (1907-1984) grew up near Brighton; her family were of the working poor. A bright girl who was offered a scholarship to continue school through her teen years, she had to go to work instead, because her parents could not afford to feed her through several more unproductive years.
Powell remembers her childhood fondly, although she sometimes experienced hunger. It was common in her neighborhood for the family to attend church on Sunday, and then the next day the women would carry their husbands’ suits to the pawn shop, where they could raise a little money to help them through the week. Then they would redeem the suits in time for the next weekend. This background of poverty explains why a girl would leave school at the age of 13 to work a series of menial jobs, mostly involving household chores. At 14, she found a steady job in a hotel laundry, but turning 15, she was eligible for a raise and was promptly fired, to be replaced by a younger and cheaper employee. At this point she entered domestic service as a kitchen maid, the lowliest servant position.
The memoir presents a portrait of back-breaking labor. Before 8:00 a.m., the kitchen maid had done these jobs: clean the flues, light the fire, blacken the grate, clean the steel fender and fire-irons, clean the brass on the front door, scrub the front steps, clean the boots and shoes, and set the table for the servants’ breakfast. Unlike servants in the TV dramas, Powell and other servants resented being worked like donkeys. An atmosphere of class warfare dominates this narrative, with employers complaining constantly about the servants, some of whom seethed under the harsh physical demands of their jobs. In one house, the mistress required that bootlaces, then one-half inch-wide, ribbon-like strips, be ironed each day.
Powell gives plenty of detail about the operation of a large British house in the 1920s and ‘30s. Eventually she became a cook, working in a series of households of varying wealth and social position. Only once did she work in the kitchen of a grand house owned by aristocrats, when she took a temporary position to replace a cook who was out sick. Most of her employers were upper-middle-class families who had made their fortunes in India or doing some mysterious business "in the City" of London.
She first worked in a house where the cook ruled, and the tradesmen maintained a steady flow of daily food deliveries. It was a shock to her, in one household, when the mistress usurped the cook’s authority by closely supervising food purchases and keeping the key to the larder herself, doling out ingredients each day.
Readers of Mrs. Beeton’s Victorian cookbook will see examples of her recipes and techniques in Powell’s cooking descriptions. I especially enjoyed these practical glimpses of historical procedure: clarifying stock by adding eggshells to the broth or preparing a meatloaf by wrapping the ground meat, herbs, and egg in a cheesecloth and simmering it in stock, rather than baking.
Viewers of the BBC shows will see some similarities between Powell’s narrative and certain incidents in the screenplays. When Powell marries a milkman and retires from service, she begins by trying to prepare the same sort of menus she had served her entire adult life as a professional cook. Remember when the cook in Upstairs, Downstairs visits her nephew and prepares elaborate feasts he and his wife do not appreciate? Powell’s husband wanted simpler fare like fish and chips. Aside from his preferences, expense was a factor, and Powell went back to the working-class style of cooking her mother had prepared in the days of her childhood poverty.
Powell has an eye for detail and keeps the reader entertained throughout with her selection of anecdotes. She can be matter-of-fact or mischievous in the telling; she often expresses a lot of attitude that her employers would certainly have called a bad attitude, but readers benefit from the decided point of view. This is a breezy read that can be finished in one sitting. Highly recommended.
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