Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Class Warfare - Upstairs and Down

"Below Stairs" by Margaret Powell St. Martin's Press 212 pages $22.99

Powell was born in 1907 in Hove, England, the second oldest of five children. At 16, she had to support herself as her parents couldn't. Work was slim on the ground for her father and her mother worked as a charlady.

She went into domestic work, starting as a kitchen maid, long considered to be the lowest person in the household staffing. In short, she got the scut work - supervised by the cook. Cook helped herself to the port; Powell scrubbed the front stairs, polished all of the copper pans and all of the washing up (except glasses and knives - the upstairs maid did that) for family meals and dinner parties. In those days, 10 guests ate their way through massive seven course (or more) dinners.

The maids, upstairs and down, the butlers and especially the gentlemen's valets had no lives of their own as they worked all of the time, so they lived vicariously through their masters. Many were the stories the valets told about "Lord so-and-so did (fill in event) today" as if they had been in the room while the event took place.

The social set-up at that time was quite rigid. A duchess must rise when a countess comes into the room and can't sit down again unless the countess says she can... that kind of thing. And that kind of thinking backwashed into the servant's world where the butler barely trumped the cook; upstairs maids were higher on the ladder than scullery maids and so on. Everyone had to be ranked. Depressing, sin't it?

Powell eventually became The Cook herself. She published these memoirs in 1968 at age 61. It was an instant bestseller and is said to have inspired the PBS series "Upstairs, Downstairs" and the rather insipid "Downton Abbey." She died at age 77 in 1984.

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