While it isn’t kind to cast aspersions on any one’s looks, by her own admission Margaret Powell was no great beauty. But what she lacks in aesthetic appeal, she more than makes up for in wit and charm and when serendipity handed me a copy of her first book “Below Stairs”, last week I was thrilled to find myself in the company of a woman capable of making me splutter my hot chocolate over the bedclothes as I chuckled in sheer delight at her often naive, but occasionally absolutely hilarious tales from life as a Kitchen Maid and Cook in large houses in the early years of the last century.
Sent to work in domestic service at the age of fifteen by her poverty struck parents, it was Margaret’s tales of life “below stairs” that were thought to have inspired the glorious seventies BBC drama Upstairs Downstairs (currently once again in production, and re-written by Cranford writer Heidi Thomas for airing later this year), and though I had not heard of her before I bought a very battered copy of her first book for 2p last week, I am now on the trail of all her work, and have ordered the next two books in the “stairs” series from Abebooks….
While the writing is at times slightly disastrous and “Below Stairs” itself blessed with some desperately old fashioned ideas and views, Powell brings to her stories such humour and insight into what it was to be in domestic service in the era she is writing about, that one finds oneself forgiving her almost instantly, because her ignorance is of it’s time and I suppose representative of the social standing she holds, and doesn’t give any indication that she wants to escape, although she is expressly and hilariously clear that marriage was always her ultimate goal, and to girls of her class, their saving grace.
She is at her most perceptive in her observations of the quirks and eccentricities of the upper classes, with one incident concerning the man of the house with a kink for touching the housemaids curlers being both funny, and to a degree, desperately sad in terms of what many girls in service were willing to tolerate in an effort to win preferential treatment in the form of time off and much treasured gifts, like stockings and scent. That the lives of those below stairs are often terribly dull and occasionally back-breaking is not skimmed over and Margaret Powell makes no effort to pretend otherwise, and though her writing style is chatty to the degree that it feels rather like sharing a cup of tea with your Nana, as she tells you all her tales of yesteryear, she doesn’t ever try to jolly it up, or pretend that for those at the beck and call of the Mistress of the house, resentment wasn’t always bubbling extremely close to the surface.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. “Below Stairs” is abundant with domestic description of the likes lost to even those of us who spend our days in a constant search for it, and Powell strikes just the right balance between detailing her tasks as a maid and complimenting that information with atmosphere and gossip from what it was to live in her generation, with a turn of phrase that often had me howling…
“I remember about a year after I was married I chanced to meet agirl I’d known in service and we went into a tea-shop to talk about old times. She told me she had been married for five year and when I made an inquiry into whether she had any family she burst out, “Oh I hate all that side of married life. I can’t bear George even to kiss me because I know he’s leading up to “that”.” She would never put it into words, it was “that”. Well I remarked that her Mother couldn’t have felt like that, she’d had twelve children, the Mother had. She said “Oh it was my Dad, he’s never leave her alone. Even when she was hanging the washing on the line he would creep up behind her and in the daylight too!”I was thrown half mast at this! Laugh? Her “in the daylight too”, it sounded so funny. And when I said to her, “Well it was a blessed interlude on a wash day,” she was so incensed that she stalked out and I had to finish my tea on my own. But I couldn’t help bursting out, could I? It was a pleasant interlude.”
Dear Margaret Powell, I was thrown “half mast” too! Many a time actually. So my dear darling Housekeepers, should you wish for the funniest of old-fashioned company this Summer might I suggest Mrs Powell? You will find her on both Abebooks and Amazon, and with a tray of tea at your side I can’t imagine you will find her anything other than utterly delightful.