screenshot92 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”.

Margaret Powell was born into a lower working class family in 1907. Although she enjoyed school, her family could not afford to send her into higher education,and she entered domestic service at age fifteen as a kitchen maid.

Powell was not prepared for the rigor of the kitchen maid’s life and the type of cooking that these aristocratic and semi-aristocratic families would require. She recounts in sharp detail the disparity between “Them” – those who lived upstairs- and the servants below stairs. Of course, not all the experiences are horrendous, and Powell does eventually become cook in some of the houses where she is employed.

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.