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[549] Below Stairs – Margaret Powell


” We always called them ‘them.’ ‘Them’ was the enemy. ‘Them’ overworked us, and ‘Them’ underpaid us, and to ‘Them’ servants were a race apart, a necessary evil. ” (Ch.14, p.91)

In 1968 debut author Margaret Powell published Below Stairs, a memoir of the ten years she had spent in domestic service earlier in the century. Daughter of a seasonally-employed house painter and a char lady, who cannot afford her education, Powell had no choice about going into service. By the age of eight the little girl (eldest of seven kids) already knew what it was like to queue at the soup kitchen and collection banisters for fuel.

Although much of what I have said may make you think I was envious of the lives of other people this wasn’t really the case. It was the inequality and the unfairness that struck me so much of the time. (Ch.16, p.117)

Although she won a scholarship to attend grammar school at age 13, at her parents’ insistence she started working in a commercial laundry until she was 15. Used to cooking for her six siblings and loathing needlework, Powell opted to be a kitchen maid, “the lowest of the low,” (Ch.8, p.41) rather than take a slightly more genteel post as under-housemaid. Powell is very good at dramatizing those mortifying moments when a servant’s lack of self-hood are brought painfully home to her. In one household she was looked down as something sub-human when he tried to hand her mistress a newspaper (without placing it on a silver tray). In another provisions were rationed, as the mistress insisted on keeping the key to the store cupboard with her at all times. Still another expressed surprise that one of her maids should want to borrow a book from her library shelves.

Girls like me who they considered came from poverty-stricken homes should be glad to work in a large home with food and warmth. To them upstairs, any home was better than the one that you lived in with your parents. . . . And as for domestic servants having aspirations to rise above the basement, such a thing was incredible to them. (Ch.21, p.167)

Despite what her memoir may sound like, Powell claims that she is not embittered about having had to go into domestic service. In fact, the memoir reflects the fact that during her time, almost 70 percent of the Britain population engaged in a workforce serving the privileged minority. While acknowledging that individual employers could be kind, Powell reassures readers of a maid’s lowly position and the inferiority complex the job triggers. But behind their impassive expressions and respectful demeanor hide servants’ scorn and derision. What angers Powell the most is the unfairness: Getting married is the only legitimate reason for quitting the job, yet having a boyfriend was an offense that would send a girl packing. Filled with keen observation, forthrightness, and honesty, Below Stairs gives a glimpse of life in the strictly class-driven society of 20th century England. What the book does not convey is the in-depth look into the domestic service since she quit after 10 years.

212 pp. St. Martin’s Griffin. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

2 Responses

  1. It has to have been a very tough way of earning a living. I think Downton Abbey makes it look more idyllic. May not have been so nice.

    • She was looked down as being something sub-human. The episode in which she tried to hand the newspaper to her mistress registers deeply in my mind. It almost reminds me of how the maids were treated in The Help. Margaret Powell’s experience reminds me that her employment in domestic service was a reality of England during her time. The society was a class-driven one to the extent of absurdity.

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