What the kitchen maid saw.
Powell’s account of her time “in service”—employed as a servant in several stately English homes in 1920s England—is a key inspiration for such entertainments as the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, programs that relish in the dynamic between the lordly masters of the house and the earthier workers who toil down below. The author’s voice is instantly compelling, salty and unsentimental about the many difficulties and small satisfactions she encountered as an impoverished young girl and woman struggling to make her way. Sex is much on Powell’s mind, both as a source of wry amusement and a mercenary desire to marry and escape a life of domestic drudgery, and her plainspoken bluntness on the topic is bracing. She is also amusing on the eccentricities of various employers and colleagues, the rigors of working to unreasonable standards and the social structures and mores of both the servant classes and their putative betters. But it’s Powell’s nascent social conscience—an evolving rage at the inequities and institutional humiliation inherent in the English class system—that makes the strongest impression and elevates the memoir from a quaint look back to an affecting portrait of a vital, intelligent young woman struggling to assert herself against a system that would prefer she keep her head down and her mouth shut. It’s to her credit and the reader’s good fortune that she did neither.
An irresistible inside account of life “in service” and a fascinating document of a vanished—if fetishistically longed-for—time and place.