Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

below stairs margaret powellWhen I was in Toronto just before Christmas I took the opportunity to pop into Nicholas Hoare for some shopping. It's one of my favourite bookstores. I love browsing there, especially in their history section. Something almost always catches my eye and this time it was Below Stairs: The bestselling memoirs of a 1920s kitchen maid by Margaret Powell.

I noticed it was recommended for fans of Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, and while I haven't watched either of them I own them both. (Yes. I have not watched Downton Abbey. And yes, I know it's really, really good and no I don't know why I'm procrastinating. Though it probably has something to do with piles of Dr. Who DVDs that I'm currently staring at...) Who doesn't like a memoir that's described as "feisty" to boot?

As the title suggests Margaret Powell, then Margaret Langely, was a kitchen maid. She had not desired to go into domestic service. She had attended school until her early teens and was even offered a scholarship that would have trained her to be a teacher. Margaret's family didn't have much money and were unable (or unwilling) to support her through teacher training so it was decided that she had best go into service. Since she hated (and wasn't good at) sewing, her mother decided the best place for her would be in the kitchen. She was only 14.

Every now and then I dream of a large house. (Just think how many books could could fit into a large house...) But large houses are a lot of work and upkeep and sometimes, yes, require staff. That always brings me back to reality. Reading everything Margaret had to do each day made me exhausted. I am so happy I don't have to get up at 5:30am to scrub my front steps. I'm also glad I don't have brass on my front door or shoelaces that need to be ironed. Those are just the things she had to do before breakfast.

The life of a kitchen maid was one of drugery. I say with complete honesty that I could not do it. My hands wouldn't be able to take it. (I am not being a delicate flower, I swear. However I have sensitive skin that does protest if I have to wash dishes more than once a day. The way my hands would look after a week of washing that many dishes? You wouldn't want me in your kitchen.)

The work Margaret did was not easy -- even when she moved up into a cook's position she had long days of hard work. Things were changing , though and pople in service were starting to demand a little bit more  for themselves. Margaret was able to get more time off and the occasional benefit that would not have been available even ten years earlier. Some of her employers seemed genuinely concerned that their servants were happy while others really didn't care. No matter how good the employer was, there was always a divide between "us" and "them."

Through her years of service Margaret kept her sense of self and her love of reading. She never forgot that this was not something that she wanted to do for her whole life and did, eventually, find her way out.

I am glad to see that Powell's book is regaining attention thanks to the interest in that era and of the lives of both the people who inhabited upstairs and downstairs of those big, magnificent houses. I'm going to keep my eyes open for her Climbing the Stairs: Further tales of a 1920s kitchen maid.