Below Stairs by Margaret Powell
Those interested in learning about different lives
In a nutshell:
Author Margaret Powell shares stories from her life working as a Kitchen Maid in England.
“I couldn’t help thinking of my poor father and mother at home. All they had was toast. And all this food going up to them, who never worked. I just couldn’t help thinking of the unfairness of life.”
Why I chose it:
I picked this up at a charity book sale at work just before lock down, then rescued it from my desk in September. It just looked interesting.
I was looking to learn something about a life that was different from mine, and boy did I find it here. The author starts out sharing what she and her siblings did for fun, but soon switches over to her work life. And it wasn’t just soon in the sense of the book, it was soon in the sense of her life. At 13 she earned a small scholarship and wanted to work to be a teacher, but that would have meant her parents would have had to continue paying for her schooling until she was 18, and that just wasn’t an option. So instead she went to work as a domestic worker in a house at the age of 13.
THIRTEEN. Ack. That’s so young. She lived in the home where she worked with the other domestic workers, so she was not only working but living on her own at an age when I was still in middle school. And she was working HARD. She’d get 4-10pm off one weeknight and one weekend evening each week. Not even a full day off. She’d be up at 5:30 to do tasks, and not be done until 8 or 9 at night. And she was doing hard labour – lots of cleaning and polishing and washing, and this was the 1920s, so she was doing this without the vast majority of conveniences we use when doing similar work.
In addition to the hard work, what she shared about the relationship between the staff and the families in the home was not unbelievable, but was so just … gross. Only one of the many families she worked for seemed to really treat the staff well. One yelled at her for handing the lady of the house something directly, with her hand, as opposed to using a tray to do it. As though the family member couldn’t bear to touch someone so low. I’d love to think times have changed, but considering how poorly people treat people who work in the service industry, I don’t think it’s that different. The location of the disdain has changed, but not the feelings of superiority.
Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it: