• Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

    I asked A-Y if I could review this book, the memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid, because my grandmother and two of her sisters were ‘in service’, and I wanted to add to the information I learned from them and from family stories about the life.

    In many ways the book gives more than its title promises; a detailed description of life for poor families in the opening years of the twentieth century, when sending your thirteen-year-old into service meant you could feed your younger children better, and teenagers took on that responsibility. Her description of wives pawning their husbands’ suits on Monday to get enough money to feed their families until Friday, when the suits would be redeemed for weekend wear chimes with stories from the older generations of my own family.

    Click here to buy from Amazon

    The descriptions of her life as a kitchen maid show hard work, long hours and an interesting view of the ways different employers treated and reacted to their servants. As her career progresses, as well as describing how she learns to be a cook, she notes the improvement in working conditions, as more career options open up for young people, and employers need to attract servants, rather than have a ready and fairly desperate supply.

    Like many women of her time, her dream was to marry, and she has some sobering descriptions of how girls achieved this. I was interested in her comparison of employers’ attitudes to servants’ ‘followers’ with their marketing their own daughters as ‘debutantes’. Both sets of girls were hunting husbands, but with different levels of approval!

    Margaret was obviously very intelligent, and read avidly during her working life. Once her family had grown up (and there are some poignant stories of her sons’ experiences as scholarship boys in fee-paying Grammar Schools) she passed ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, and became a successful author. Not quite her original ambition of teaching, but an achievement for anybody, particularly someone who left school at 13 and started serious academic study in her fifties.

    I enjoyed this book, which was easy to read, intelligently written and informative. However I note with sadness that it is marketed by the publisher as ‘If you liked ‘Downton Abbey’ or ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, you’ll like this’. For me that trivialises this genuine memoir, which is a description of a vanished world from which the current generation could learn a great deal, not an extension of fictionalised, unrealistic TV drama.


    Click here to buy from Amazon
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Heli's Avatar
      Heli -
      The subject matter is interesting (although lacking in the detail that I would have liked) but this is so badly written and edited that it made my eyes bleed. There are far better between the wars below stairs memoires.