Thursday, 7 March 2013

Non-fiction Review: 'Below Stairs' by Margaret Powell

This was written in 1968 and was supposedly the inspiration for the popular TV series ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ and (much later) Downton Abbey. The author describes her impoverished childhood, and then her experiences of working in service for various wealthy families, first as a kitchen maid and later as a cook.

The writing style is best described as naive. It reads as if she were simply chatting about her life, talking in her everyday manner, with all the repetitions and clichés intact. Everything is ‘marvellous’ or ‘tremendous’ or ‘I remember an occasion...’. I have an image of her as an old lady sitting in a wing chair beside the fire, telling her tales as someone (a favourite neice, perhaps) takes down her words. Which is the intention, I daresay.

The early chapters about her childhood and family are fairly stilted and dull, although there are occasional anecdotes that liven things up, and the author’s own personality shines through. Bolshy is the word that comes to my mind. She’s definitely not a meek and mild sort, and you wouldn’t think that a life of servitude to the upper classes would suit her, really. Once she starts work as a kitchenmaid, her asides about the disparity of life above and below stairs become an entertaining feature. Upstairs is furnished with plush carpets, elegant draperies and fine furniture, while downstairs is lino and wobbly cast-off chairs. Vast quantities of food are cooked, picked at and later thrown away by the fussy family upstairs, while down below the servants never have quite enough to eat.

At first, as the harrassed and put-upon kitchen maid, the chapters are full of grumbles, but as she branches out and becomes a cook, there’s more about the pleasures of life downstairs and the humour shines through. The most interesting aspect, for me, was the difference between those employers who treated their staff as little more than slaves, and those, more enlightened, who treated them as people. Some houses the author worked in provided properly furnished rooms for the servants, with plenty of modern equipment and good wages, and the staff were generally contented and stayed for many years. It was an era of transition, the period between the wars when staff were increasingly hard to find and so conditions had to improve, but some grand folk apparently adapted better than others to the new circumstances.

The author was always focused on getting a husband and thereby escaping from domestic service altogether, but it seemed to me that her married life was in many ways harder and less comfortable than her life as a cook. Certainly she had more freedom, but she was never well off, and at times was desperate for money. But at least she had the intelligence to see the value of education, and took evening classes and read a great deal. This (combined with her bolshy nature) gave her a certain self-confidence. My favourite moment from the book is when her posh employer tells her off for damaging a mirror. ‘You must treat things better, Margaret,’ she said. ‘Don’t you love good objects?’ ‘No, I don’t, Mrs Schwab,’ I said. ‘To me they’re just material things; I have an affinity with G. K. Chesterton who wrote about the malignity of inanimate objects,’ I said, ‘and I think they are malign because they take up so much of my time, dusting, polishing, and cleaning them.’ At this point in her life, she was a daily cleaner, and any daily who can answer back with such a quote (the malignity of inanimate objects!) is at least the equal of her employer, in my view.

Not the best written book ever, and it starts slowly, but it’s still a fascinating look at a lost way of life, and an entertaining read. Three stars.

1 comment:

  1. What a pity the book wasn't narrated in a better way!