Below Stairs ("The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey"), was born in 1907. Highly intelligent, she won a scholarship at age 13 but her parents were too poor to pay for food and lodging, so into service she went, as a kitchen maid at the age of 15. (Above, Downton Abbey's kitchen maid Daisy Robinson, played by Sophie McShera; right Edwardian maids.)
Margaret's first post was with a vicar and his wife in Hove, near Brighton. Their Regency house had 132 stairs from basement to attic; needless to say, these two areas were frequented by staff only and were less than salubrious. For 25 pounds a year, Margaret had six hours off once a week and six hours off on alternate Sundays. "I thought they had made a mistake," she says of the list of duties she was shown. "I thought it was for six people to do." Rising at 5:30, she had to clean the flues, light the fire, blacklead the grate, clean the huge steel fender and fire irons, clean the brass on the front door, scrub the 14 outdoor stone steps, clean the household's boots and shoes, and lay the servants' breakfast—all before 8 a.m. in a workday that often lasted until 8 at night. No wonder she thought she was in the pits of hell!
The employer's repasts were denied to the staff (who ate Welsh rarebit and macaroni cheese), and the maids lived in Dickensian conditions. This turned our heroine, understandably, into a proto-socialist: "The two pounds a month that I have in money is supposed to be supplemented by the board and lodging. If the lodging is of the kind that Mary and I have in this attic and the food is meagre, how are we getting an equitable wage?"
On the maids' afternoons off they sometimes went to tea dances. That was one of the few places they were likely to meet potential husbands (although they had to lie about their work as "skivvies"). Margaret eventually did get married, despite the fact that her work left her so worn out that she usually ended up collapsing at a film on her afternoon off.
"The most exciting part about dinner parties was the chauffeurs…. You never saw such a fluttering in the dovecote…. There were six or seven of us women who hardly ever spoke to a man and whose femininity was so suppressed that we got to be like female eunuchs…. Even the sewing-maid and the nursemaid would find some excuse to come down. And all because of these chauffeurs in their uniforms." Right: British chauffeur Frederick William Nibbs, born 1882 in Lambeth.
While there are some vague congruences between the world of Downton Abbey's servants and that described by Powell, her narrative come down mainly on the side of the BBC Program Servants—The True Story of Life Below Stairs, which portrays their existence as "miserable, degrading and exhausting." Thankfully, her prose is anything but.