Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid by Margaret Powell

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Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid by Margaret Powell

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Affluence and poverty co-exist in this personal story of climbing the servants' ladder in the 1920's, which could only have been written by chirpy Margaret Powell. Second time round, it's still a good read for the social historian.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Pan
ISBN: 978-0330535380

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Below Stairs was first published in 1968, and it's no exaggeration to claim Margaret Powell as the trailblazer for the memoir genre. This book encouraged hundreds of autobiographies of common life, and spawned a whole generation of tv programmes. In its vernacular and popularist way, it was probably as influential as Mayhew's 'London Labour and the London Poor'. Before her, only famous people wrote their stories, and that without too much regard for reality. Unless they were literary writers, achievements were downplayed and emotions hidden away, in the stilted style of the British stiff upper lip. Not so Margaret Powell, who became a publishing sensation when she blasted through with a robust Voice rather than a polished narrative, in the first-ever tale of an ordinary servant writing about everyday life below stairs. Imagine being talent-spotted from an evening class and invited to write your memoir: those were the days!

Born in 1907, Margaret grew up in Hove, the eldest girl of seven. The family just scraped by and the children helped out. When her mother was at work, from necessity Margaret took over cooking and household duties. At other times, she relished the freedom of her childhood, when the older ones free-ranged through their seaside town playing imaginary games, crowding in for a silent movie or competing in the seasonal games that British children loved for generations.

At fourteen, and with an extra mouth to feed, the family could no longer afford to keep Margaret in school. So her mother entered her into service as a kitchen maid, since the young teenager hated sewing. All other positions required maids to mend linen or make children's clothes. She learned to assist the cook, preparing vegetables and washing dishes – for a family of three and a staff of eight – as well as lighting the range, scrubbing the front door step and cleaning boots every day. By the time she was eighteen she reckoned she could get by as a cook, It must have been difficult to find staff in the Twenties, because she cheekily talked herself into a position. Then she learned to cook.

Upstairs was inhabited by Them, the middle and upper classes who employed staff to run their large houses, in the expectation that their life of privilege and wealth was their rightful place in society. Below stairs were Us, an assortment of working-class servants, united in hatred but dependent on Them, and almost equally class-conscious.

Margaret's ambition was to get out of service by marrying, but in the meantime she developed enough nouse to deal with predatory men from upstairs and downstairs. She learned from the other servants' bawdy jokes, and thereafter sexual embarrassment was completely absent from her writing. It was not so very long since the Lord Chamberlain's Office had been abolished, and most autobiographies were still quite discreet. Her robust comments informed, entertained and were ever-so-slightly shocking to her generation of older readers: Sunday afternoons were devoted to lovemaking, because there was not much privacy in working-class families. When you lived in two or three rooms, you had to have some of the children in the same room with you ... so that's why Sunday School was so popular then. It went down a storm and Margaret Powell enjoyed media fame as a well-loved author for the rest of her life.

If you are interested in social history, this book makes a fascinating read, forty-four years on. It's not the strongest writing I've ever read. Just remember, that though her style may seem unpolished to our more sophisticated eyes, she was the original, who held open the door to Below Stairs for many others to follow. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book.

Suggestions for further reading

Bookbag reviewers also enjoyed 1923: A Memoir by Harry Leslie Smith and Nella Last's extraordinary diaries, eg Nella Last's Peace edited by Robert and Patricia Malcomson. Today's authors are now publishing records of the Fifties on: I particularly liked Jennifer Worth's Farewell to the East End and Shadows of the Workhouse.

Buy Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid by Margaret Powell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid by Margaret Powell at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid by Margaret Powell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid by Margaret Powell at Amazon.com.


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