Margaret Powell (1907 – 1984) was an English writer. Her book about her experiences in domestic service, Below Stairs, became a bestseller and she went on to write other books and became a television personality. Below Stairs was an impetus for Upstairs, Downstairs and the basis of Beryl's Lot, and is one of the inspirations of Downton Abbey.
Early life and domestic service
Margaret Langley's father was seasonally employed as a house painter, and her mother was a charwoman. Her parents and her grandmother lived in three rooms in Hove, Sussex, and she had six siblings. When she was 13 and won a scholarship to grammar school, her parents could not afford to allow her to take it up. She went to work in a laundry until she was 15 and became a maid, first locally and a year later in London. Since she had experience cooking at home and hated needlework, she became a kitchen maid instead of an under-housemaid, a slightly more prestigious position. She then "lied [her] way" into a job as a cook at a different house.
After "set[ting] about [finding a husband] as if it were an extra household duty, like hulling five pounds of strawberries or mopping the linoleum floor", she escaped domestic service by marrying a milkman, Albert Powell, leaving "with an enormous sense of inferiority and the ability to cook a seven-course dinner." When her three sons were in grammar school, towards the end of the Second World War, she became a maid once more. Eventually, "when I realised I had nothing to talk about with my eldest son, who was preparing to go to university", she took evening school courses in philosophy, history and literature, passed her O-levels at 58, and went on to A-levels, passing the English A-level in 1969.
Writing career and later life
She published her memoir, Below Stairs, in 1968. It sold well, 14,000 copies in its first year, and was followed by other autobiographical books beginning the following year. She also wrote some novels. She became a popular guest on television talkshows. When she died in April 1984 at 76 after suffering from cancer, she left a substantial estate of £77,000.
Below Stairs was one of a wave of working-class memoirs beginning in the 1950s, and is about class—she writes, "We always called them 'Them'"— but "defiantly individualistic" rather than socialist. Powell is bitter about the injustice of her situation, "very good at dramatising ... mortifying moments", and "throws the last shovel of dirt on the myth of the devoted help and their unfailing love and respect for the stately home". The book "prompted a storm of hurt letters". However, she has no time for politics and instead focusses on beating the odds: "Those people who say the rich should share what they've got are talking a lot of my eye and Betty Martin; it's only because they haven't got it they think that way ... [I]f I had it I'd hang on to it too". The Wall Street Journal's reviewer in 2012 called her "admirably feisty" and "wittily scathing of the class-bound cant conditioning Britain in the early decades of the 20th century".
Below Stairs inspired the television series Upstairs, Downstairs, which was created by two actresses whose mothers had also been "in service". The series Beryl's Lot was based on it, and it was one of the inspirations of the series Downton Abbey, which began in 2011. It was reissued that year in the UK as Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid and in 2012 published for the first time in the US as Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey".
Selected publications and reissues
- Below Stairs. London: Peter Davies, 1968. ISBN 9780432118009
- Below Stairs: the bestselling memoirs of a 1920s kitchen maid. London: Pan Macmillan, 2011. ISBN 9780330535380
- Below Stairs: the classic kitchen maid's memoir that inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey". New York: St Martin's Press, 2012. ISBN 9781250005441
- Climbing the Stairs. London: Peter Davies, 1969. ISBN 9780432118016
- Climbing the Stairs; From Kitchen Maid to Cook: the heartwarming memoir of a life in service. London: Pan, 2011. ISBN 9781447201960
- The Margaret Powell Cookery Book. London: Peter Davies, 1970 ISBN 0-432-11802-0
- Margaret Powell's London Season. London: Peter Davies, 1971 ISBN 0-432-11804-7
- The Treasure Upstairs. London: Peter Davies, 1970 ISBN 0-432-11803-9
- "Why downstairs HATED upstairs: The acerbic memoirs of a Twenties maid reveal what domestic staff REALLY thought of their masters", excerpts from Margaret Powell, Below Stairs, Daily Mail, 25 February 2011.
- Kathryn Hughes, "Maid in England: Margaret Powell's Below Stairs recalls a life in service between the first and second world wars", Rereading, The Guardian, 19 August 2011.
- James Fenton, "The Abbey That Jumped the Shark", The New York Review of Books, 8 March 2012.
- Elizabeth Lowry, "What the Help Really Saw: A true tale of a life in domestic service puts the lie to television's whitewashed versions", Bookshelf, The Wall Street Journal, 14 January 2012.
- Jane McLoughlin, "Upstairs, Downstairs", The Christian Science Monitor, 29 January 1974 (pay per view)
- "Authoress dies", The Glasgow Herald, 26 April 1984.
- Miles Kington, "Lost in an enchanting world of forgotten classics", The Independent, 11 December 2007 (online at Highbeam; subscription required) calls her: "the lady who in the 1970s was always on TV telling us about life in domestic service, and who wrote several upstairs, downstairs best-sellers."
- The Canadian Press, "Large Estate", The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan), 15 September 1984.
- Lucy Delap, Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain, Oxford / New York: Oxford University, 2011, ISBN 9780199572946, p. 211.
- Judith Newman, "Remains of the Days: Three Books Explore the Reality Behind the World of 'Downton Abbey'", The New York Times Sunday Book Review, 3 February 2012.
- Neal Justin, Variety, "Abbey's road; The wit and wisdom of writer Julian Fellowes makes season two of 'Downton Abbey' an absolute masterpiece", Star Tribune, 8 January 2012 (at Highbeam; subscription required)
- Anthony Hayward, "Obituary: Kevin Laffan Creator of the long-running ITV soap opera 'Emmerdale Farm'", Obituaries, The Independent (at Highbeam; subscription required)