While I hoped that I would be making vast inroads into my TBR bookcase during this season of not buying books, it hasn't quite worked out that way. Besides borrowing numerous books from the library, I have been revisiting some of the books on my shelves. One author that I fished out last week was Margaret Powell and her second volume of autobiography Climbing the stairs (I have yet to spot the first volume Below stairs in a shop).
One of the things I love about reading books is the ability to encounter worlds that one is unfamiliar with, whether they are of a different occupation, different culture or different time. Margaret Powell was a domestic servant, and although I know quite a bit about this occupation from visiting National Trust properties with "below stairs" rooms open, it is hugely fascinating. Below stairs is a memoir of her years spent in service; sent into service at the age of 15 she started as a kitchen maid and worked her way up as cook. It was an immensely popular book, selling 14,000 copies in its first year (yet there are only 12 copies on librarything.com) and this success lay partly behind the commissioning of the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs.
Climbing the stairs tells the story of Powell's life outside of work. It begins with her exploits on her afternoons out (tea at Lyon's Corner house, dances, dates with unsuitable young men) and then tells us what happened next; she fell in love with the milkman and she left service to get married. They set up home and had children; it was not an easy life as they did not have much money but they managed some holidays/
If this is a topic you are interested in, I would also recommend Pamela Horn's Life below stairs in the twentieth century which is a study of domestic service in Britain last century. It draws on lots of accounts, including Powell, and is a thoroughly absorbing read. Another perspective on this world can be found in Monica Dickens' account of her work as a cook-general in a similar period in One pair of hands.
Mavis Gallant’s “Madeline’s Bithday” (1951)
6 hours ago