When poor British school girl Margaret Powell was thirteen, she won a scholarship to continue her education, but when her parents discovered it would be five more years before their daughter could earn a wage, they said "no" to the offer. She was pulled out of school and hired as a day maid that year. When she turned fourteen, she was hired by a laundry that fired her a year later because a fourteen year old could be paid less. Within another year, her mother placed her as a kitchen maid in a big house, where her duties included making the morning fires, polishing the brass railings and door knockers, and ironing her employer's shoe laces before anyone in the great family was awake. Then she was all day in the kitchen. Being in the lowest of low positions, working for next to nothing, she was at least sheltered and no longer a mouth for her parents to feed. Some children worked as hard in the 1920s as they had in the time of Charles Dickens.
Having been a good student and a constant reader, Margaret aspired to leave service from the beginning, but it took her a couple of decades. In that time, she advanced through a number of kitchen positions in houses big and small, meeting many lifelong servants with many stories to tell. She recounted these times with humor and a sense of outrage in her 1968 book Below Stairs, just now published in the United States. The subtitled for the new edition claims the British book inspired the writing of scripts for both the 1970s TV series Upstairs, Downstairs and the new series Downton Abbey. Statements from creators of both series are found on the book jacket as proof. Fans of either or both series will delightfully recall many scenes as read.
For a book that is touted to have had such an impact, it is fairly short and quick to read. Discussion groups might like to pair it with episodes of either series or the movie The Remains of the Day.
Powell, Margaret. Below Stairs: The Classic Maid's Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. St. Martin's Press, 2012. 212p. ISBN 9781250005441.