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on January 5, 2012
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. She describes in first person a bygone era which we now watch on television. I can't always agree with her opinions or decisions at times, but I greatly respect the journey which she took as well as the ultimate thirst for life and learning which she embodied.

The only reason this book received four stars instead of five is a very personal one. I loved reading the novel from beginning to end, but I wish it had been a little more detailed in places. I would have liked to have known what happened to the author's family, for example. I would have liked to have known a bit more about how she met and courted Albert the milkman. I would have loved to have heard about the rest of her personal life, but I suppose there are only so many pages in a book. Either way, the lack of one star does not mean a lack of quality in the book. Reading this book is like sitting down and listening to the tales of a beloved relative with tales to tell. It's an opportunity you don't want to miss.
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on 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 Amazon.co.uk, which is just as accessible as Amazon.com, 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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on January 22, 2012
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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VINE VOICEon February 10, 2012
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. We all worked those hours, but of course, I remember mine in particular because it was mine that made me tired, not theirs." P121
5. In describing an outhouse still used at one home Margaret says, "And it had one of those seats with two holes. The sort for Darby and Joan who couldn't bear to be separated. Talk about two hearts that beat as one! Heaven knows it was lethal enough when only one had been in. I shouldn't think two could have come out alive." :0
5. In discussing the advantages that employers gave for paying low wages and stressing what the servant would learn, she says, "When I left domestic service I took with me the knowledge of how to cook an elaborate seven course dinner and an enormous inferiority complex; I can't say I found those an asset to my married life." P191
6. To explain poverty and sex she said, "...when I was a child I'd lived on a street where most babies were born as a result of Saturday night reveries. They were known as beer babies." P193

I really liked this little book which can easily be read in one very long sitting or several shorter ones. It kept my interest throughout, and the lack of any vulgar language was a refreshing change. I would say it is a safe book for middle aged kids, although they may ask what some of the anachronistic terms mean. I highly recommend this book to all.
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on February 9, 2012
Margaret's story of her time in service, first as a kitchen maid and then as a cook, brings to light the working conditions of the serving class in the early 1900s. Just as interesting is the attitude of "them" living upstairs in those great houses, the employers, their family members, and their friends. To think that just because a person was a servant that they couldn't read is so sad; to treat servants as less worthy of the basic comforts of life (food, shelter, kindness) is deplorable. As with many other reviewers, I have come down with Downton Abbey fever and am watching similar movies and reading books regarding about the servant class. Powell's book is a quick read; I enjoyed her wit but sometimes felt I was slogging through the details.
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on January 31, 2012
The cover of the book compares Below Stairs to "Downton Abbey" and "Upstairs, Downstairs." In fact, the image of Daisy, the kitchen maid in "Downton Abbey" kept floating through my mind as I read. But what this book has that the two series don't is a closely wrought picture of the life and heart of a kitchen maid. We see images of young Margaret, new to service, polishing the front door brass until her hands swell with chillblains, only to be dragged in front of the mistress of the house for a dressing down regarding the bits she missed. In Margaret Powell's stories, we see not only how tough the work was, but the toughness of mind and the emotional calluses that she needed to form to do that work. She tells the story in simple, straightforward, almost childlike prose, but the detailed pictures she painted drew me in and made me ask the question of whether I could have survived the work and the indignities as well as she did.

Susan Lynn Peterson
author of Clare: A Novel
a story of Irish immigration in the early 20th century
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Written in an earthy manner and from a woman who spent time in domestic service starting in 1921 at the age of 14, this is a fascinating tale of life in the big house. Margaret Powell begins her story in Hove, her birthplace and home town. The daughter of a house painter/handy man/jack of all trades and a charwoman, Margaret grew up with her six siblings in a home full of love but not much else. Both parents made very little money, compounded by the fact that her father's work was mostly seasonal and there were so many mouths to feed and clothe, By the time Margaret reached the age of 13, despite being quite intelligent, she left school to work and help her family. She spent a year working in a laundry but was sacked when she reached 15 because she was due to get a raise and their were plenty of 14 year old girls who would work for less. Her mother decided that she should go into domestic service, a decision Margaret was definitely keen about.
From that point on, Margaret worked her way up from kitchen assistant (the lowest possible position in domestic service) to cook (probably the most plum of jobs within a wealthy household). She worked in a variety of households, with one seemingly worse than the other. Food and accommodations were meager and substandard and in startling contrast with the residents who employed her.
While never one to think about the differences in class, she became accutely aware of the disparity and disliked the monied class who she referred to as 'Them'. During a temporary cooking job, she manages to hit the jackpot with a family who went against type and were absolutely great to work for and were generous, thoughtful, caring and considerate. I would have sworn they were the inspiration for the Downton Abbey Crawleys and possibly even better. However, ultimately Powell felt that even the best of employers viewed those 'in service' as inferior and that even the most generous employers' largesse was strongly driven by the changing dynamics re: getting good and dependable staff. Powell, who was inquisitive and a life long learner, even repeatedly said that her years in service gave her an inferiority complex.
As she chronicles her experiences in service, she tells some funny stories and some vey sad ones. She discusses her hopes to marry and break the cycle of servitude and her adventures involving her attempts to meet Mr. Right.
When I started this book I hoped it would be interesting, but it really exceeded my expectations. Powell was vivid in her descriptions, had seemingly great recall, and structured and interesting and realistic account of working for an odd mix of eccentric and at times miserly people who were rigid in their classist society. She also managed to capture a dying way of life for those she served. After WWI, changes in society brought a gradual change in the size of household staffs and brought new dynamics to domestic service.
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on January 25, 2012
The book has been re-issued (even in e-book format!) because it is one of the sources used by the writers of the popular PBS/BBC series Downton Abbey. And yes, I'm a big fan. Apparently the book was wildly popular in the UK when first published and created something of a sensation.

Margaret Powell vividly illustrates the division in the great houses between the wealthy noble families and their large staffs of servants. The houses themselves were physically divided with front and service stairs so that some servants seldom entered the part of the house used by the family. Class lines were rigid and mutually enforced on both sides.

Margaret was something of a rebel and always tried to make something of herself. She was an avid reader and one of the most poignant passages in the book relates her request to the mistress of the house she worked in to borrow books from its library. "Of course, Margaret," was the reply," but I didn't know that you read!"

Margaret is a memorable and in many ways admirable character. She not only read, but later in life completed her education and got a college degree. She is a good writer but not always a fluid one. The book is a personal memoir, not a sociological study, and succeeds on those terms.

Readers will not find any of the plot lines of the television series but will better understand the world of the "downstairs" characters.
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on September 5, 2011
Very interesting read about what it was like in service in the early 1900's. The writer also has a great sense of humor. This book made for some great summer reading.
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on January 15, 2013
Margaret Powell's Below Stairs is a memoir about her life as a kitchen maid and cook for wealthy British families in the 1920′s. The subtitle of the book calls it the inspiration for "Upstairs Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey".

While not a polished writer- it feels less like reading a book and more like you're sitting at a kitchen table, drinking tea and listening to Powell reminisce- Powell is extremely entertaining. Working below stairs had its (few) benefits: the domestic staff was often more earthy and authentic than their above stairs counterparts. The life was not easy, though, and Powell is not shy about hiding her often-justifiable resentments.

I remember touring the Biltmore House, and being somewhat shocked at the servants' quarters compared to the splendor of the rest of the house. That same feeling is repeated here when Powell recounts some of her accommodations. Powell's insights are not whitewashed, nor do they seem to be embellished for the sake of the story. She simply recounts her life as it was, the good and the bad; the kind people to work for and the ones that were more cantankerous or downright rude. And, minor spoiler alert, she gives a glimpse of what she made of her life after leaving service.

Despite the book not being particularly well written, I liked reading Powell's story. I think fans of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey will also appreciate this glimpse into the life of those below stairs.
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