Maybe you’ve been watching “Downton Abbey” and you’re curious to know more.
Maybe you’re an Anglophile through and through.
Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve been doing some spring cleaning – and you wonder how anybody could possibly keep a house bigger than yours clean, all year ’round.
Have we got the book for you.
This April, just in time for spring yard and housekeeping duties and in the wake of the season finale to the popular TV program “Downton Abbey,” the choice of The Buffalo News Book Club is a memoir of what it’s like to work as a domestic servant in the great houses of England – by a woman who lived the life.
Our selection for the month is Margaret Powell’s funny, perceptive – and completely memorable – memoir of her time as a kitchen maid and cook, “Below Stairs.”
This book was a surprising hit with the public when it was first released in England in 1968. It became, in time, part of the inspiration for TV shows including “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs.”
Now, the 45-year-old memoir has been newly reissued in the United States.
Craving a peek behind the scenes, at English upper-class life, and the ways and woes of the servant class that silently peopled the halls of the rich and influential? This book is just your ticket.
“There’s this whole sense of being thrust into a new world,” said Michael Flamini, an executive editor at St. Martin’s Press in New York City, who worked on bringing the Powell memoir to American audiences in a new edition. “I find that so interesting.”
“I was absolutely captivated when I read ‘Below Stairs,’ ” Flamini said. “I thought, ‘Wow, people are really going to love this.’ ”
Powell died in 1984. She did not spend her entire life in service; she married a milkman, raised a family, and found a second life and career as a writer of popular books.
And yet, in many ways, Powell’s own story remains as riveting as the humorous, poignant anecdotes of English upper-class life she recounts in “Below Stairs” (where you will learn, for instance, how a stove should be blacked and how brasswork should be polished, and what a “savoury” is, as well as when during a meal it should be served – and what a hapless cook can do, when she has thrown into the pigs’ bucket the very kipper that the mistress suddenly wants served with the evening meal).
Born in 1907 to a working-class family in Hove, England, Powell did so well in school as a girl that she was offered a coveted scholarship to continue her education. She dreamed of becoming a teacher. But Powell’s family could not afford the luxury of more schooling for her – she had six siblings, and her mother had to take work as a charwoman, while her father worked as a painter.
So Powell went out to work. She took her first job at age 13, as an attendant to older women who needed household help. Soon after, Powell got a job in a laundry.
Within a few years, at her mother’s encouragement, she went into domestic service.
Powell started in service at just 15. At that age, and with no experience, she ended up as a kitchen maid – typically the lowest rank among servants. She was given a small, usually shared bedroom, as well as a list of daily duties that seemed overwhelming.
“When I looked at this list,” Powell writes in “Below Stairs,” “I thought they had made a mistake. I thought it was for six people to do.”
She had to get up at 5:30 in the morning, light the fires and clean the flues, “blacklead” the grate (with a “hard old lump of blacklead”), clean all the fenders and fire-irons, clean the front door – especially the brass, which the mistress of the home was particular about – scrub the front steps, and clean all of the boots and shoes that would be needed by the “upstairs” members of the household. This task included, in at least one household, the step of taking out and ironing all the shoelaces and bootlaces in those shoes and boots.
And this was Powell’s duty, before breakfast. After breakfast, the real work of the day started.
Flamini, the editor at St. Martin’s, said that Powell’s appeal lies in her clear and concise descriptions of her circumstances – she is honest about the good and the bad, equally.
“A huge part of this book’s appeal is, it’s the flip side of the ‘Downton Abbey’ story,” said Flamini. “Margaret Powell never, ever says, ‘Oh my employers are wonderful.’ She sort of has this gimlet-eyed approach, like, ‘I can play this game.’
“It’s an interesting viewpoint on this, from someone in this culture.”
Flamini said that the book has done well with American audiences as well as British ones, and is accessible to all – regardless of their knowledge of British society life in the 1920s and 1930s and onward – because of Powell’s unassuming, forthright delivery.
“I wish I’d have known her,” Flamini said. “I think she must have been a hoot. A hoot, raucous, but also a very hard worker. You get the feeling that Margaret Powell enjoyed her work, did it well.
“That’s what’s great about her.”
The Buffalo News Book Club has a few copies of “Below Stairs” to give away to Book Club readers. To be considered for the books, write to the Book Club at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by U.S. mail at The Buffalo News – Book Club, One News Plaza, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240.
More Powell titles
If you love Margaret Powell’s take on life as a domestic servant in “Below Stairs,” you’ll be thrilled to learn that more of Powell’s writing is now available.
Here are two other titles by the late British author that were recently published in the United States:
1. “Margaret Powell’s Cookery Book: 500 Upstairs Recipes from Everyone’s Favorite Downstairs Kitchen Maid and Cook,” from St. Martin’s Press, $25, 332-page hardcover.
In a wholly different vein, this “Cookery Book” by Powell presents recipes and cooking tips gleaned from Powell’s years of service to families of wealth and status in Britain. From “Goose a la Provence” and black butter sauce to charlotte russe and sand cake, you may not end up cooking like Powell – but you’ll sure get a glimpse of the culinary world she occupied. This book is intermixed with some of Powell’s reminiscences on her life as a domestic, including many years as a “plain cook” in the houses of England.
2. “Servants’ Hall: A Real Life Upstairs, Downstairs Romance,” from St. Martin’s Press, $23, 184-page hardcover.
In this nonfiction tale, Powell returns to the subject of her days working as a domestic servant for the upper classes of English society. Here, we see one of the episodes she witnessed firsthand while in service. Powell tells the story of Rose, a beautiful parlormaid of a well-to-do society family, who ran away with – and then married – the only son of the family. Scandal, as well as some mutual unhappiness, ensued. Powell’s take on the case of Rose and her unexpected husband is told in her own inimitable style.
– Charity Vogel