- - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

By Margaret Powell
St. Martin’s Press, $22.99, 212 pages

It’s hard to know which brings more viewers to something like “Downton Abbey”: the grand life above stairs in the great house or the bustling turmoil that makes it all possible. Certainly, its attraction is rooted in the contrast between a grandeur to ogle and a world of drudgery to deplore. The escapism and the mixture of envy and ridicule it engenders is easy to understand. Less attractive is the schadenfreude brought on by witnessing a servant life that must in fact have been all but unbearable.

Shows like “Downton Abbey” - and even the much more realistic and fact-grounded original “Upstairs Downstairs” - deal with this problem by wrapping it in a sticky shroud of coziness and sentimentality masking cruel reality.

For a view of what such a life actually was like for the servants who made gracious living possible for their employers, it is hard to beat Margaret Powell’s hardheaded, unsentimental memoir. It is all the more amazing because she did not toil in a huge, aristocratic pile but in upper-middle-class households. Even after World War I, which so shook up the pecking order at Downton Abbey, these relatively modest establishments employed a staggering number of domestic servants:

“Compared to some of the other houses I worked in, there weren’t so many. There was a butler; a parlourmaid instead of a footman; two housemaids - upper and under; a governess; and a gardener/chauffeur; the cook and me.”

But when you realize that as kitchen maid (admittedly the lowest position in the house) Ms. Powell received just 2 pounds (then less than 10 dollars) a month, you see why her employers, the Rev. Clydesdale and his demanding wife, could run such an establishment. Three-course luncheons and five- or six-course dinners featuring the choicest provisions were de rigueur.

What Ms. Powell had to do in return for that princely sum and the plain but plentiful food and grim lodgings that came with it is astounding. Here’s how she started her day:

“Rise at five-thirty, come downstairs, clean the flues, light the fire, blacklead the grate, clean the fender, clean the brass on the front door, scrub the steps, clean the boots and shoes, and lay the servants’ breakfast. And all this had to be done before eight o’clock.”

As she tells us, there were no labor-saving devices: that “four foot long steel fender, with a tremendous shovel, tongs, and poker all in steel … had to be done with emery paper” and the polish for the grate had to come from a hard lump left out overnight to soften in a suitable consistency. And this was just the beginning of an endless day filled with all manner of drudgery.

Ms. Powell was obviously a person of intelligence, and she did well enough at school to be eligible for a scholarship. But her desperately poor family, who received no government aid in those pre-welfare-state days, simply could not wait until her qualifications would enable her to earn a wage. Her family needed her to go out to work at age 13 because that would mean one less mouth to feed.

Knowing there was no choice, she accepted this harsh reality and did not repine, although the unfairness of life as she knew it was apparent to her. But, as an older, more experienced servant told her: if there weren’t people like their employers to hire them, what would they do for work? Her account of servant life pulls no punches, but she never whines about it.

Despite the deck being so stacked against her, Ms. Powell played what cards she had with skill and determination. No matter how grim her lot as kitchen maid in successive houses with ever grumpier cooks, there was never one where she couldn’t acquire skills. Soon she was able to offer herself up as a “good plain cook” and so better herself, although at the outset, the kinds of establishments that would employ someone at her level did not run to a kitchen maid. So she had to do that work as well as be responsible for the actual cooking. Her story is an example of what can be achieved against all odds with enough grit.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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