Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Below Stairs

by Margaret Powell
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2012.

Originally written in the 1960s, Margaret Powell's first memoir as a kitchen maid and then cook in the 1920s and 30s is newly reprinted with a subtitle touting it as the inspiration for "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey."

At first, I had a hard time believing this could be the inspiration, as it's very different from "Downton Abbey." An introduction with an explanation for the claim and a quick overview of the class system - though it's changed when Powell is writing, it's assumed you understand - would have been helpful to me as a young American, but there is none. Besides enjoying "Downton Abbey," I've done some research in family history and know I had relatives in service in the late 1800s to early 1900s, so I was interested in Powell's perspective. She pulls no punches in talking about her several positions with employers who were bad, worse or indifferent (I think there was one or two nice ones in there). She's not bitter, though, and she's often funny so once I got over the fact that it was different from what I expected, I did enjoy reading her thoughts and observations. Powell is clearly intelligent and curious and a reader. She has a sort of meandering, oral style and I could almost picture an older woman talking to someone, reminiscing about life when she was younger. The cover of the reissue - a woman dressed as a maid with a feather duster in hand and three young children in the background - has nothing to do with the contents (I surmise it may be from "Upstairs, Downstairs"?) and felt tacked on. If you're a fan of the "below stairs" aspect of "Downton Abbey," this eyewitness account will definitely be of interest.

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