Powell, Margaret. Below Stairs.

London: Peter Davies, 1968 (NY: St. Martin, 2012).

In 1920, thirteen-year-old Margaret Langley, like many English girls her age, had to go out to work. Her father, a house-painter, was unemployed for half the year and with five children in the family, money was very tight indeed. Margaret had to take the earliest opportunity to support herself.

Fortunately, she was a large, strong girl (“hefty” is how she describes herself), and she was able to find day work in various middle-class homes. She went to work at the local laundry when she was fifteen — the minimum age — but after she had been there a year and was due for a raise in pay, she was sacked out of hand; the laundry preferred to hire another fifteen-year-old for less pay.

The only thing for it was to go “into service,” as her mother had done when young. Margaret had zero talent at needlework, so that let out being a chambermaid, parlor maid, or nanny, all of whom had to be able to mend things. Only the kitchen maid, the lowest-ranking servant in a house, didn’t have to be able to sew, so that’s what she became, with aspirations of working her way up to being a cook. By the late 1920s, Margaret had worked in a number of establishments for a variety of mistresses, both good and bad (mostly bad), both in her home town of Hove (a suburb of Brighton) and later in London.

This not-large book is Margaret’s own story, as told by herself in blunt but perceptive prose. She has some very pointed things to say, especially, about those members of the upper-middle classes — and they were the majority, in her experience — who thought they were innately better than the servants who lived and worked in the basement. She didn’t begrudge them their money, really. She wishes she’d had more money herself and would have been equally unlikely to share it. No, it was the attitude that servants were subhuman, that they simply couldn’t be trusted, and that they should be grateful for the opportunity to serve their betters. But, of course, “Them upstairs” were only fooling themselves. Their servants, especially the maids, knew exactly what the mistress thought of them, and most of them (including Margaret) had every intention of leaving service as quickly as possible.

The thing is, Margaret was a smart young woman. She had been offered a scholarship to the equivalent of high school, only her parents simply couldn’t afford to keep her at home while she attended. She read omnivorously, which also made her employers suspicious. Moreover, the times were changing. She didn’t realize it at the time, but she was part of the last generation, really, for whom domestic service was the only route to escape poverty. Those who kept servants were finding it increasingly difficult to find willing young women who would work cheap, especially assisting the cook in the kitchen, which gave Margaret a certain amount of leverage. And she took full, conscious advantage of it, too.

When this book was first published in the 1960s, Margaret had been married for some thirty years to a milkman. She makes no bones that it wasn’t an especially romantic marriage, and it was certainly hard work (especially during World War II, with her husband overseas and only a tiny separation allowance), but she was happy in it and had raised three sons, all of whom went off to university. Feeling that she was being left behind intellectually, she embarked on the advanced education she had been denied as a child, and had completed her “O” levels, and then her “A” levels, before she was sixty.

The jacket copy claims the original publication was the inspiration for Upstairs, Downstairs (and even the more recent Downton Abbey, which seems very unlikely), but that’s not really the point. You should read this book because it paints a clear picture of the perfidy of class divisions. American conservatives like to claim “class warfare” is a conspiracy by those at the bottom of the economic heap, but older British workers know better. And young Margaret Langley can give you chapter and verse. An excellent book.

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