Title: Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey”
Author: Margaret Powell
Written: 1968/ 1968
If you’re half as mad for Downton Abbey as I am, you’ve probably seen this book mentioned as one of the inspirations for that show. And if you’re half as mad for Downton Abbey as I am, you’ll read pretty much anything that says “this has something to do with Downton Abbey.”
First, let me explain what this book ISN’T. It is NOT a novelisation of the TV show. You won’t see the Granthams and the Crawleys and their many dramas in these pages.
First written in the mid-60s and published in Great Britain in 1968, this book was all the rage, sort of the way _Eat, Pray, Love_ * was here in the US a couple of years ago. On the heels of the book’s popularity, actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins conceived of a show about housemaids that would capitalize on the revived interest in that vanished way of life. Much of Britain was undergoing shrinking pains as the Empire turned into the Commonwealth and the prosperity of earlier generations vanished under crippling war debts. Nostalgia for the bygone days was tempered with the memories of those for whom the good old days weren’t do good. So this book, and by extension the TV show, were perfect. Marsh and Atkins were able to interest the networks in the show once they expanded their stories to include the wealthy employers as well as the maids, and Upstairs, Downstairs was born.
Julian Fellows, the creator of Downton Abbey, was an “Upstairs” fellow all the way. He was one of those who was living the Upstairs lifestyle in the 60s as Below Stairs was released. The stories and anecdotes in Powell’s successful memoir stuck in his head to be resurrected years later as the “Downstairs” storylines in Downton Abbey.
Now that we have the Downton Abbey pedigree out of the way, let me explain what this book IS.
It is a memoir written by a woman who was highly intelligent and won a scholarship to college to become a teacher. However, back in those days of no student loans, she couldn’t afford to go and instead had to go to work at 14 to help support her family. Margaret Langley was a natural storyteller, a passionate reader, an autodidact and a keen observer of people. When her sons went to college she went with them, got a degree in her later years and wrote several books about the way life was before the sun set on the British Empire and the Middle Class came into its own.
A lot of what happens in Below Stairs is unhappy stuff. People are treated unfairly, harshly and sometimes with great cruelty. But Powell’s skill at weaving the narrative makes it all go by in a pleasant and compelling read. If you’ve seen either of the shows that use this as source material you’ll recognise Powell’s stories as having happened to this or that TV character, and the shout-out is a bit of a treat. If you haven’t seen the programs, reading this witty, interesting and fascinating book will have you hunting them down on Netflix.
I love this book nearly as much as I love Downton Abbey, even though there is no Isis.
The only drawback, and that drawback is what costs it a worm, is that there are certain stories you come to expect after awhile–such as how she met her husband–that just never appear. I would have liked more detail about that part of her life, especially as much as it figured into the narrative about her years on staff.
I’m rating this as a solid 4- bookworm read and hope you’ll seek out a copy for your enjoyment.