Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

11966836.jpgNonfiction — print. St. Martin’s Press, 2012. Originally published 1968. 212 pgs. Library copy.

I spotted this book at the public library last week and was intrigued largely because of the subtitle added to this memoir which proclaims it to be “The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs, and Downton Abbey“. Ya’ll, I am obsessed with Downton Abbey, and the only reason that I haven’t started watching Upstairs, Downstairs is because I’m afraid I will watch that rather than doing my homework.

Powell’s memoir is very much so written in the “as told” style; it reads like she’s having a steam of consciousness conversation with the reader. Powell explains why she started working in domestic service where, as a kitchen maid, work started at 5:30 am and went on until after dark. She doesn’t glorify her work in the way Downton Abbey glorifies with work of Daisy, and she has very harsh things to say about her employers.

“That way they called it ‘looking after the servants’, taking an interest in those below. They didn’t worry about the long hours you put in, the lack of freedom and the poor wages, so long as you worked hard and knew that God was in Heaven and that He’d arranged fr it that you lived down below and laboured, and that they lived upstairs in comfort and luxury, that was all right with them. I used ti think how incongruous it was when the Reverend used to say morning prayers and just before they were over he’d say, ‘Now let us all count our blessings.’ I though, well, it would take a lot longer to count yours than it would ours.” (pg. 73)

This is one of the biggest criticisms I heard aboutDownton; it glorifies the 1 percent and their “interest” in their servants. It makes being that rich appear perfectly acceptable because wealth trickles down to the poor and improves their lives. Economically, this is not true. Historically, this is not true. Powell has a lot to say about this in her memoir.

She’s also harshly critical of the sexual revolution playing out at the time her memoir was published (1968). According to her, young women can get pregnant out of wedlock without being cast out of society and with the full support of their family and government. I’m not all that familiar with English sexual politics, but this is still largely the case in the United States. I know several girls from my high school who were kicked out or forced to marry quickly to cover up their indiscretions so I ended up being very irate about how judgmental Powell was. She may advocate for liberal economic policies but she is definitely a social conservative.

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