Saturday, March 8, 2014

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell (1968)

The subtitle of this book - on the cover, which has obviously been added since 1968 - is "The classic Kitchen Maid's memoir that inspired Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey."  I don't know know Upstairs Downstairs all that well (I watched the recent rendition and found it not as interesting as Downton Abbey).  I do know that I wish the servants in Downton Abbey were 1) as sassy as Margaret Powell and 2) as class conscious.  Thomas Barrow seems to be the only servant even ware of a of class difference, and he's not said something about it in ages; O'Brien said some stuff in the early series but then shut her mouth, and then vanished.  Daisy needs to get some of Margaret Powell's chutpah, give her notice, and go cook in London - she could obviously do it.  Margaret Powell basically talked her way into her first cooking job, and never looked back.

Margaret has a sassy, interesting voice and point of view.  Her story is straight forward.  She definitely draws the distinction between Us and Them.  In America, the class distinction wasn't as clear cut, it was more porous; in fact,race played more of a factor in determining where you sat on the mountain rather than class.  In England, at least in Margaret Powell's England, class was always going to keep Them at the top of the heap and Margaret well below, regardless of what she did.  She wasn't a revolutionary or Communist, but she certainly points out how unfair it all seemed.

Margaret also has some interesting things to say about sex, pretty frank things actually.  She draws not only a picture of the early twentieth century, but compares and contrasts the time period in which she was working with the time period she was writing (1960s).  I wonder what she'd make of how things are today.  It strikes me that she would fit in just fine.  She seemed like quite a woman.

An aside - I watched Titanic last night for a while - not all of it, just the point where the ship is gasping its last, and women just like Margaret Powell were running all over the ship screaming while their lords and ladies were floating just a few hundred yards away, saved.  Margaret Powell would have talked her way into one of those lifeboats.  But I also think she was the kind of woman who would have given her seat up to someone as well.

Below StairsBelow Stairs by Margaret Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Margaret Powell was a strong, sassy, independent woman, in a job that definitely didn't require that, and in a time period when strong women of a certain class were regarded with suspicion.  Her story is more interesting, quite frankly, than the current exploits of the Downton servants to whom she is compared on the front cover.  She's frank about many things in the book - the perils of sexually active women in the early twentieth century (a baby spelled doom for a kitchen maid), trying to find a boyfriend when you worked all the time, the odious class distinctions that kept Them permanently suspicious and afraid of Margaret and her fellow servants.  But the book isn't some sort of Communist screed; Powell is quite funny describing her life.  She's also really an admirable character, who apparently could talk her way into any job.  She really set her own path, and some of the Downton servants could learn a play or two from her playbook.

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