The secret ingredient in savory kipper
If you are one of the many Americans in thrall to the recent PBS miniseries/soap opera “Downton Abbey” (and judging by the hold list, there are a lot of you), then you owe it to yourself to add Margaret Powell to the list of must-read authors. Powell’s memoir Below Stairs, recounting her experience as a kitchen maid in 1920s London, was, if the blurbs from Julian Fellows and somewhat absurd subtitle assert, the basis for all the lovely dirt on the lives of the many serving the privileged few. Born in 1907, Powell went into service at the age of 15, beginning in the lowest position possible—that of the kitchen maid. The product of a very poor but loving family, Powell had an opportunity to continue with her studies, but in a twist worthy of Dickens, her mother encouraged her into service rather than bear the burden of feeding her for the two years it would take to get her diploma.
Originally published in 1968, Below Stairs can feel a bit dated at first, a sort of sense one gets hearing one’s elders gripe about how cushy life is for the younger set. But the thing about Powell’s writing is her delicious frankness. Whip smart and opinionated, Powell had a keen eye from the very start of her service years for the foibles of her ‘betters,’ a distinction that Powell and her fellow servants never once bought. In the course of several years as kitchen maid and later cook, Powell never fails to note the
hypocrisy of ‘Them,’ the above stairs families in England’s rigid social structure. Working in the 1920s in middle class households, Powell never worked in the grand houses depicted in Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs, yet the demands from her employers on rather small staffs remains unbelievable to modern readers. Sometimes her employers were enlightened and allowed staff to decorate their rooms, and others were loathe to part with the key to the larder, while still demanding the shoelaces get ironed (!).
But it is not all tales of drudgery that Powell tells, there’s plenty to dish here and good stuff too. There are stories of the tight-fisted Lady, the effort to cause a miscarriage on the part of an unfortunate parlourmaid, one master’s peculiar after-hours request and the particular trick in making her signature savory kippers. Margaret always knew that she intended to get married and out of service, and her efforts at dating and clear-eyed view towards the facts of life add to the fun. Chatty and salty, Powell’s memories make for an engrossing, seriously entertaining read.