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Looking at some books covers, it isn't always clear what the book is about but this is definitely not the case with this one!
Below Stairs...The Bestselling memoirs of a 1920's Kitchen Maid is exactly what you would expect. It is the writers very own story of growing up and going into the world of work, which for her class in those days was usually "into service".
The book starts with telling us of Margaret's poor but happy childhood in Hove. It paints a very different picture of life today and I think school kids of today should read this as part of the curriculum. Considering that Margaret was born in 1907, times have changed dramatically in just over 100 years!
No supermarkets, no welfare, no cars or computers and very often little food or clothing. Todays youngsters (and a few older people) just don't know they are born!
At the age 0f 13, Margaret won a scholarship to go to grammar school but as her parents didn't have the money she had to go into work. The story progresses telling of Margaret's experiences of work in a laundry, then a kitchen maid and eventually as a cook.
The only way to get out of the working environment for Margaret was to marry, which after moving to London she eventually did!
~~~What did I think? ~~~
I know this kind of book isn't everyones cuppa but having started my reading of "grown up" books with just about every one of Catherine Cookson's novels, I enjoyed it. I think the thing that had me gripped as well was that my nanna was born at a similar time. She was born in 1914 and when I used to spend time with her as a child she would tell me tales of her life when she was growing up with seven siblings, a strict father who more often than not would spend all the housekeeping on booze, and how she left school at the age of fourteen.
The story is told in a blunt but amusing way and I was very impressed that she studied for 'o' levels at the age of 58 and then went on to study 'A' levels.
Margaret always felt that it was wrong that the gentry should have everything whilst her kind got all the cast offs and no chances in life. I particularly liked the way she describes in detail all of her employers. She doesn't have many nice things to say about them but then she wasn't always treat like a human being so who can blame her?
I have worked in the service industry myself for most of my working life (Restaurant work mainly) and even now, there are still people that treat you like scum or something they have picked up on their shoe and it is so wrong!
Don't get me wrong, the majority of people are lovely and having worked where I am now for the past eleven years, many customers have become friends but you still get the odd one that thinks 'please' and 'thank you' don't exist in their vocabulary! Ok rant over back to the book. If you enjoy Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey you may also enjoy this book. The only negative I have to say about it is that she doesn't say much about her husband or her three sons which I would have liked to have known more about but all in all a good read so 4 stars from me.
You can purchase this book on Amazon for £5.24 in paperback or £2.64 for the kindle version.
Thanks for reading.
This is a review of the 1970 (reprinted 2011) book 'Below Stairs' by Margaret Powell. The book is a true account of her fascinating career of a 1920s kitchen maid. I liked the sound of the quote on the front cover which promised any fans of Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs a good read.
Margaret's background career started at the age of 14 when she became a kitchen maid in Hove, eventually progressing to the position of cook before she married a milkman.
The book reads as virtually a transcript, bearing in mind that Margaret was knocking on a bit when she wrote this book. She recounts a lot of her experiences as wonderful or marvellous but still begrudges the position of 'servant' when some have nothing and others have too much.
I enjoyed reading this book. The author is very self depreciating, describing herself as quite plain and having to try pretty hard to find a boyfriend for a date on her afternoon off!
The work of a kitchen maid is hard graft and never ending, with an early start and late finish. Her life as a cook improved her hours and work but she still tried hard and tried to work well with her employers which sometimes proved difficult.
My favourite bit of the book is when she describes her lodgings in each of the many grand houses she worked in. Sometimes it was rough and sometimes nice but never luxurious.
I felt like Margaret had a lot of respect for her work and determination to do well but often came a cropper with a clash between employers or even the other longstanding staff. Whilst she was kind to people she did not suffer fools and as such would have been a good person to work for or with.
The language in the book is simple and paints a great picture of what it must have been like in the 1920s. Some employers were very generous, some were mean and some just misunderstood what the servants felt like and forgot they have feelings too.
It's hard to imagine in these days having a staff of 10+ people but these were the environments Margaret worked in and this is within the last 100 years of our world. Times have changed so much even in terms of cooking, Margaret describes working with the best (and worst) ingredients and abhorred cooking with margarine - it had to be butter! I did not learn to make any new food after reading this book but can see how things have changed.
This book was reprinted but very much has a feeling when reading that it was written more than 40 years ago. It was also featured on the TV as a documentary so if it sounds familiar you probably saw that one too.
Life 'below the stairs' was very difficult in those days and many of these houses are put to different use these days. The discipline of the staff was immense and they got very limited time off work or away from the house, nor did they get much spending money alongside lodgings and board so there were not many notable nights out for them but they did what they could on what they had.
This book is a very innocent account and Margaret doesn't get mixed up in any nonsense with boys or men although she witnesses others doing so. I would recommend this book as a nice read to you but it only took me a couple of hours to get through it so don't expect to be overly entertained by this!
I have always been a huge fan of anything set in the early 1900's, from the rich opulent lifestyles of the "above" house members, but more so of the staff that worked and lived below them, running the houses, but very rarely being seen.
When I came across this book I was instantly drawn to the idea of reading a biography from someone who had lived their life as what was then deemed as a "skivvy", but of what we would now call a kitchen maid, as many of the books and programmes I have seen previously always came from either the standpoint of the staff as a whole, or from the higher classed staff members, ie the butler or the cook.
The book didn't start as I expected to, but started in the author's (Margeret Powell) childhood, recollecting how poor her family were, but by no means starved of love and affection.
Her journey to becoming a 1920's kitchen maid is also explained, though again I was surprised by how she came by doing this job, not at all as I would have expected, and certainly not portrayed faithfully by such shows as "Downton Abbey", which is by the way stated the ideal book for fans of the show.
The book then goes onto chronicle the working life, even through to the times when she is not in employment, with there being a few funny little anecdotes thrown in for good measure.
I have to say I wasn't overly impressed with this book at all. I would have liked much more information on the houses and day to day tasks of her job, and I always felt like she considered herself too good for the jobs she was doing, and wouldn't have batted an eyelid at being able to leave, which in retrospect is probably what most of use feel like at times, but was just not how I was expecting this book to be.
I enjoyed the recollections of her childhood, or of certain characters in her past, but felt she remarked on the majority of her previous employers with much scorn and derision (even the good one's), so felt that I couldn't really take to her as a person, which of course put me of the book in some ways too.
Price wise this was purchased as part of a "buy 3 for £5.00" offer currently running at "The works" book store.
Thanks for reading x