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Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey" Hardcover – January 3, 2012

299 customer reviews
Book 1 of 2 in the Below Stairs Series

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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


“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

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Series: Below Stairs (Book 1)
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; Unknown edition (January 3, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250005442
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250005441
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (299 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #494,421 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

173 of 177 people found the following review helpful By S. Goldberg on 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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71 of 72 people found the following review helpful By Susan Woodward on January 14, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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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52 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Amy on January 22, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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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38 of 38 people found the following review helpful By D_shrink VINE VOICE on 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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