Below Stairs: Margaret Powell

29 Jun

BelowStairsMargaretPowellThe full title of this book is actually “Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey“.  Didn’t want you to miss out on anything but that’s a bit much for a blog title, even for me.

Margaret Powell writes up a detailed account of life in service.  And though it sounds like miserable, back-breaking work there is still so much charm in this book.  Isn’t it true that we often envy the lives of others just because they are so very different from our own?  As my job requires my sitting in front of a computer for ten hours or more a day, the vigorous efforts that are required of Margaret sound like a welcome change.  It’s as if I expect to feel that welcome sense of fulfillment we all have after accomplishing a day chock full of chores.  After pulling weeds, scrubbing the tub, taking out the garbage, washing the dishes and folding the laundry I feel like Champion of the World.  So naturally, through this lens, Powell’s time in service seems a bit more tantalizing than it should.

However, it’s hard to fully appreciate the long hours of tasks that filled her days starting at 5:30 every morning unless you were actually the one holding the dustpan, the mop, the blacking brush, etc.  And no matter how romantic a time seems there always the things that we forget.  To be a woman in service is to be seen as a separate grade of people.  There are servants and then there are those who serve.

As someone who grew up thinking that I could do anything that a man could do it would be hard to suffer popular opinions about what is or isn’t proper for a woman to do.  It would also gall me to no end to allow others to think that they are better than me because they employ me.  I also think that there has been a cultural shift over the years in how we view work.  There was a time when it was “beneath” people to get their hands dirty.  Now we are surrounded by DIY-ers and kickstarters.  Not only do we believe that we can do anything, we’re overwhelmed with options.  I feel, as a woman, the pressure to bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, constantly remind the Mister that he’s a man and also be able to create a seasonally-appropriate table scape and garnish our meal with fresh rosemary that I personally grew in our window garden.

Perhaps I can look at Margaret Powell’s story with envy because she was limited to certain roles and certain tasks.  That today it’s easy to feel that we’re not doing enough simply because we can do so much more.  Somehow the Kelly Ripas and Martha Stewarts of the world have ruined our perception of just how wonderful it is to be a woman right now.  We still have so much further to go and the last few years have been steps backwards in many ways.  However, viewed through the lens of a woman born in 1907, we’ve come a long way, baby.

I have yet to watch Downton Abbey but it’s on my list.  I plan on making myself stupid amounts of tea and buying scones to have with marmalade and clotted cream.  I will binge on the series, don’t you worry.  In the meantime, this book was a welcome tale from a woman I would have loved to share my scones with.  Not my tea though.  You know for certain that I couldn’t make an Englishwoman tea.  Let’s not be silly.



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