Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid
First published in 1968, Margaret Powell’s memoirs became a bestseller, the first of 17 books she wrote, and they spawned a series of memoirs by ordinary persons of working-class origin. “Anyone who enjoyed Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs will relish this feisty memoir,” says Dame Eileen Atkins in an endorsement on the cover. Below Stairs is certainly feisty, but it hardly expresses a sentimental attachment to the time when domestic service was one of the primary occupations in the land.
Despite Powell’s cheerful voice, her depiction of life as a kitchen maid shows that such a life was far from rosy. She bridled with resentment at the unfair treatment meted out by her employers, most of whom were mean, gave little consideration to their servants’ welfare, and were scornful of their requests for more leisure time to themselves. As she grew more experienced, Powell learned to stand up for herself and demand better wages and working conditions, but what she yearned for was a husband to take her away from it all.
Born the second of seven children to working-class parents in Hove in 1907, she and her siblings were fed cheap off-cuts of meat that were known quaintly as “block ornaments”. Margaret sold jam jars to the rag-and-bone shop and manure that she collected from horses in the streets to pay for treats such as going to the circus and the cinema. Although she won a scholarship at the age of 13 and her ambition was to become a teacher, her parents could not afford to keep her any longer, so she went out to work, entering into service as a kitchen maid at 14.
She describes the drudgery of her chores in minute detail, the petty humiliations she suffered and her modest victories of self-assertion, and the pathetic self-importance of most of her employers: “If ‘Them’ could have heard what we were saying about them, they’d have realised that our impassive expressions and respectful demeanours often hid scorn and derision.”
There are lovely touches, such as a hackney cab driver rejoicing in the gloriously Dickensian name of Ambrose Datchet, who likes to entertain the cook with tales of his earlier service as a gardener in a large household, where one footman had an affair with both the lady and the master of the house. And there is the master of one house where Powell was the cook, who summons different maids to his room late at night on the pretext of needing some refreshment just so that he can get to gaze at and fondle their hair curlers.
For a domestic servant seeking the escape of marriage in the 1920s, there was a dearth of young men. Following the slaughter of the Great War, the ratio of women to men was roughly five to one. What is more, most available young men considered girls in domestic service, “skivvies”, as infradig. Margaret would wear gloves on her nights out so as to cover hands that were red-raw from scrubbing doorsteps, hearth blocks, fenders, and pots. Employers tended to degrade their female servants’ would-be relationships by referring to maids with amorous interests as “flighty” and their boyfriends as “followers”. The worst possible fate was to become pregnant without an offer of marriage, which invariably resulted in dismissal. Powell tells the story of her fellow maid Agnes, who tries everything from pills and quinine to hot, mustard baths, to jumping off park benches repeatedly, to lifting heavy furniture, in a forlorn effort to rid herself of her child. When she is dismissed, she receives three months’ instead of the usual month’s wages, leading Powell to conclude that the mistress’s nephew, a habitual haunter of the backstairs leading to the maids’ quarters, is the father.
Powell was lucky enough to marry a milkman, only returning to work as a part-time cook and daily, which she considered more dignified than being in service, after the Second World War, by which time her sons were at grammar school. Always an avid reader, she took her O and A levels late in life, and gained fame as an author. Her memoirs are spirited and heart-warming because of her, not because of her subject.