Books · Political

How the bigger half lived

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” by Margaret Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

This is a brisk and efficient book full of interesting observations on interwar British society from a working class perspective. Powell grew up in a poor family in Hove, a seaside town on the UK south coast very close to Brighton. That the working poor lived in dreadful conditions during the period is no surprise, but what struck me was Powell’s praise of Hove, where during her childhood all the lawns were public space and filled with children of all classes playing (though generally not together of course, strict nannies keeping watch on middle class kids to see that they kept their clothes clean and stayed away from the rabble). By the time she wrote her memoir in 1968 it was all ‘laid out for people with money’ and there was nowhere for hide-and-seek. Seaside shows charged for seats, but those without money could stand at the back and watch. Even more agreeable to penniless children was the easily accessible countryside full of small scale family farms where they were sure to be allowed to watch and play and were likely to be offered home made lemonade. Thus, the text bears witness to a vanished commons, which can come again if we make it.

On the never again list however go most of the other experiences Powell describes. She won a scholarship at thirteen to continue her studies and wanted to become a teacher, but left school at the same age to start working in ‘domestic service’ because her family could not afford to support her. Powell notes that WWII completely changed the labour situation in the UK, allowing domestic workers to demand better conditions as the fighting took its toll on numbers of working age men, and women found more work available to them. Since service was renowned as appallingly paid, extremely hard work, and being a ‘skivvy’ was so disdainfully looked down on (in my view classism around work plagues British culture just as much today) that people were eager to find any other work, employers were forced to offer better pay and conditions as well as scale down their staffs as other sectors opened. However, during the years Powell worked as a kitchen maid, extremely long hours, humiliating treatment, minuscule wages and physically exhausting work were the norm. Her determination and intelligence helped her transition to the desirable post of cook (regarded as the best job in service), which gave her more time off, but pay was still poor and hours long.

While many middle class people in the UK pay someone to come in and clean for them regularly, and the very wealthy employ nannies, cooks and housekeepers, it’s the exception rather than the rule for these people to live in the house of the folks they provide services for. Thus, the worker has an external private life in which they are not defined by their job, something vitally important for dignity and self esteem in our individualistic culture, even more so with the influence of the mythology of meritocracy. What Powell rails against most strongly is the condescension of employers (thinking about Mr Collins’ use of the word to describe and praise the insufferably arrogant Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice) who aren’t capable of considering their employees equally human to themselves. She is enraged by the ugliness and carelessness with which ‘servant quarters’ are furnished and vigorously ridicules employers’ concern for the ‘moral welfare’ (ie religious observance and abstinence from sex and alcohol) of their staff when they care little enough for their physical or psychological welfare to provide them with unheated garrets, straw mattresses and leftover food.

Neither much of a feminist (she complains about the appalling fate of women who became pregnant while ‘in service’ yet asserts proudly that her husband got ‘good value from [her]’ in terms of cooking, child-bearing and housekeeping) nor an egalitarian (‘I don’t particularly envy rich people but I don’t blame them. They try and hang onto their money, and if I had it I’d hang onto it too. Those people who say the rich should share what they’ve got are talking a lot of my eye and Betty Martin’) Powell is at least a forceful opponent of the mockably elitist culture of classism. She speaks warmly of one family she worked for who genuinely respected their staff as people and provided excellent conditions and care. I’m sceptical that Powell’s ‘hang onto what you’ve got’ philosophy is compatible with the cultural shifts needed to make that one good apple in the rotten barrel of employers the rule rather than the exception. It’s obviously scandalous that an academically inclined young girl was prevented by the failure of the state and social fabric from continuing her education, and instead had to undertake work that, she reports, caused her long term psychological damage.

I’ve got carried away discussing the social implications of Powell’s spirited and amusing memoir, but it is also fascinating from a food history perspective. Powell compares pre-war food very favourably with more modern fare, pointing out that everything was fresh as there were no refrigerators, and that bread and cakes weren’t made in cost-cutting factories. British post-war food culture has a dire reputation partly blamed on rationing (though the people of Powell’s class finally got enough to eat thanks to the regulations) so it’s no surprise to hear that the food of the twenties and thirties was more appealing than than of the sixties, but the inter-war diet of the rich as cooked by Powell for her employers was heavy on meat and fatty dairy products like cream and butter, which most likely caused the gout and other diseases of excess to which the sickly rich were prone in middle and older years. Pretty much within my lifetime London has become a good place to eat, mainly thanks to immigration, but also increasing health-consciousness that has led to more and fresher veg and wholefoods on offer. If you want to know more about this topic, check out this fun documentary series‘Back in Time for Dinner’ which starts in the ’50s = )

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