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Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey" [Kindle Edition]

Margaret Powell
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (253 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $14.99
Kindle Price: $9.99
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Sold by: Macmillan
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Book Description

Brilliantly evoking the long-vanished world of masters and servants portrayed in Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, Margaret Powell's classic memoir of her time in service, Below Stairs, is the remarkable true story of an indomitable woman who, though she served in the great houses of England, never stopped aiming high. Powell first arrived at the servants' entrance of one of those great houses in the 1920s. As a kitchen maid - the lowest of the low - she entered an entirely new world; one of stoves to be blacked, vegetables to be scrubbed, mistresses to be appeased, and bootlaces to be ironed. Work started at 5.30am and went on until after dark. It was a far cry from her childhood on the beaches of Hove, where money and food were scarce, but warmth and laughter never were. Yet from the gentleman with a penchant for stroking the housemaids' curlers, to raucous tea-dances with errand boys, to the heartbreaking story of Agnes the pregnant under-parlormaid, fired for being seduced by her mistress's nephew, Margaret's tales of her time in service are told with wit, warmth, and a sharp eye for the prejudices of her situation. Margaret Powell's true story of a life spent in service is a fascinating "downstairs" portrait of the glittering, long-gone worlds behind the closed doors of Downton Abbey and 165 Eaton Place.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The popularity of Sunday school among the working classes had less to do with religion than parents’ much-needed private time, according to Margaret Powell. Such revelations are rampant in Below Stairs, a fascinating and feisty memoir of Powell’s life as a kitchen maid and cook in 1920s England. Originally published in the UK in 1968, it’s again a best-seller there after the debut of the Emmy Award–winning series, Downton Abbey, which, along with Upstairs Downstairs, took inspiration from the book. Powell writes conversationally, offering cutting and humorous insights. She piles on the details of a domestic servant’s day—up at 5:30, work enough for six people, and don’t forget to iron the bootlaces—but stops before she falls into self-pity. Running through it all is the divide between the servants and Them, manifesting itself in everything from the sad parade of practical Christmas gifts to the employer’s order that nothing be served from a servant’s bare hands. Powell reminds readers that these things shouldn’t be forgotten, and she is an honest, saucy, and skilled storyteller. --Bridget Thoreson


"Margaret Powell's sharply observed memoir... stands out in the tradition of literature about servants for being a true account of a life spent in domestic service, although the incidents it relates are as vividly entertaining and disturbing as anything found in fiction."--Wall Street Journal
"What makes Powell such a credible narrator is the fact that she’s never reflexively bitter or nasty. When she worked for a family that treated her with kindness and without condescension, she was deeply grateful and desperate to please... All these years later, “Below Stairs” retains its peculiar fascination."--The New York Times
"An irresistible inside account of life “in service” and a fascinating document of a vanished--if fetishistically longed-for--time and place.“--Kirkus Reviews
Anyone who enjoyed Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs will relish this feisty memoir.”--Dame Eileen Atkins, co-creator of Upstairs, Downstairs
“Margaret Powell was the first person outside my family to introduce me to that world, so near and yet seemingly so far away, where servants and their employers would live their vividly different lives under one roof.  Her memories, funny and poignant, angry and charming, haunted me until, many years later, I made my own attempts to capture those people for the camera.  I certainly owe her a great debt.”--Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey

Product Details

  • File Size: 399 KB
  • Print Length: 221 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1250005442
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press (January 3, 2012)
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #48,335 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
168 of 172 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Charming. Delightful. I wanted to read more! January 5, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I bought this book solely on the basis of the second half of the title - "The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired 'Upstairs, Downstairs' and 'Downton Abbey'". I am a far bigger fan of Downton Abbey than I was of Upstairs, Downstairs, but never mind that. What a charming and delightful memoir!

The book's notes say that the first volume of Margaret Powell's memoirs were first published in 1968. That would also be consistent with the declaration that this book helped inspire Upstairs, Downstairs which I think originally ran from 1971-1975. I am assuming (but I may be wrong), that this book is the compilation of her original memoirs. Since the author passed away in 1984, she couldn't very well have added anything recently unless the family came across additional writings which she might have done.

Anyway, onto the book itself which is charming and written in very British English. I had to resort to the dictionary a few times to find the meaning of a British term with which I was unfamiliar, but who doesn't love learning some new words? It tells Margaret's story in her own words, from childhood through older age when she was finally able to return to school. It was so easy to put myself in her place as the story unfolded, trying to imagine what I might have said or done in the same circumstances which she describes as first a kitchen maid in service and then a cook.

One thing I might want to point out to potential readers who are expecting to read something with a storyline like Downton Abbey's multilayered saga - This is Margaret's personal story. Other characters enter and exit, but it is essentially Margaret's struggle to survive in service during the early part of the 20th century.
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70 of 71 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars delightful, and there is more January 14, 2012
The book is a delight for its honesty and a special window into a life that is very different from ours. The narrative is observant, direct, and informative about a world now long gone. If you read to live a little slice of a life not your own, you will like this book. But it is not brilliant, so don't expect Remains of the Day or some such.

The reader above who complained he wanted more should check out Powell's other books, including "Climbing the Stairs" and "Albert: My Consort", which continue her life and report the details of her successful connection to Albert the Milkman. "Climbing" can be found on the US Amazon, but for the others one might need go to, which is just as accessible as, but of course, the shipping is a bit more.

Powell has written several other books including cookbooks, indeed it seems she scribbled right away, but they are found only in the UK as of now.
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50 of 50 people found the following review helpful
By Amy
This could be an inspiration for, but also a counterpoint to Downton Abbey's representation of effacing servants and thoughtful employers. Of course, Margaret Powell's story is somewhat different - instead of working in an aristocratic manor house, she toils in London homes with 5 or less employees. Her life is what you might expect - born into a working class family, she goes to work as a teenager, starting as a kitchen maid and eventually becoming a cook. Her life seems to be continual work, making the most of almost Victorian conditions, serving well-to-do families with little pay and certainly no thanks.

There is an undercurrent of anger and contempt for those she works for - you really cannot hold this against her. But the book is funny, charming and you can hear her unique voice as you read it. I read this in a day - you won't want to put it down. In conclusion, she mentions that by the time the book was written (late 1960s) things had changed drastically and domestic servants were treated much better than in her time. Still, she points out that it's useful to know how things really were.
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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Clean Fun With Wry British Humor February 10, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This was a humorous account of life in service in the early to mid 1900s. Margaret Langley Powell [1907-1984] started in the lowest position of service in the British household, that of being a cook's helper; meaning she did all the dirty work in the kitchen. She finally rose to the rank of cook with her own helper, after which she became an author and life was a bit easier for her later years. Since this book was originally published in 1968, she really had a hard life until she was 61.

I particularly loved her descriptions of life in service without the use of vulgar language thrown in gratis by most modern authors. I would like to give a few examples that sum up her thoughts, at least as I see them.

1. "...when you see an economic recipe and they say you can't taste the difference from the original, [normally this meant substituting margarine for butter] well probably you can't if you've never eaten the original." P96
2. In speaking of her disdain for employers always being practical, "At Christmas we got presents of cloth to make things with, aprons and horrible sensible presents." P98
3. One of the cutest stories about sex without using the word was told about the upstairs parlor maid Gladys and her family, "According to Gladys, her father drank like a fish and he came home most nights roaring drunk and incapable. I used to think he couldn't have been SO incapable, otherwise her mother couldn't have had nineteen children, could she?" :)
4. In describing her regular Spring cleaning chores at one household she says, "During these four weeks I got up at five o'clock each morning and I worked until eight o'clock at night. Then I had to get supper for the servants after that.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Detailing the life of an ambitious kitchen maid in the 1920's and her...
For those fans of the Downton Abbey series, this short memoir may be of interest as it details the life of a young woman who becomes a kitchen/scullery maid and works her way up... Read more
Published 4 hours ago by Michelle Boytim
5.0 out of 5 stars The education of a poor English girl in early 19th century
Very educational part of history , I still am unsure how the change in the class system took place how did the upstairs rich change so much and what precipitated this. Read more
Published 1 day ago by Ruth Pflueger
3.0 out of 5 stars Story was good, enlightening, not great
This was a good book, however, Margaret seemed to be resentful, self absorbed person. Her jobs were very difficult, at a very young age and I can see where her outlook could... Read more
Published 3 days ago by Carol Kollmer
5.0 out of 5 stars LIght and easy read
A light easy read, perfect for bedtime. Read this first then her other books. All good reads.
Published 3 days ago by Susan Morris
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth looking at
Excellent item & service.
Published 5 days ago by Rex M Edwards
3.0 out of 5 stars Wasn't as in depth as I hoped it would be ...
Wasn't as in depth as I hoped it would be. Still, I learned some interesting bits of information that I can relate to while watching Downton Abbey!
Published 7 days ago by Karen Tislow
5.0 out of 5 stars If you love Downton Abbey
If you love Downton Abbey, you should read this and get a more personal perspective of the times" below stairs."
Published 15 days ago by Mom of 2 boys
4.0 out of 5 stars Cheeky
Funny..interesting insight into that era..this book shows the progression of a young kitchen servant into a cook. She is very insightful and witty.
Published 20 days ago by nancy oden
3.0 out of 5 stars The author had a very good "sense of self" and succeeded when women...
A fast read, slow at times yet extremely interesting at others. The author had a very good "sense of self" and succeeded when women who were less sure of themselves would... Read more
Published 20 days ago by Barbara Tidyman
5.0 out of 5 stars The Way It Was . . .
I liked the author's attitude, especially because she did not let the upper-class folks posh and demeaning manners get her down. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Fern Elizabeth Watts-Horn
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