Maid’s memoir gives glimpse at real life ‘Downton Abbey’

April 6, 2013

You may have heard of Anna and Mr. Bates, O’Brien and Thomas, but have you heard of Margaret Powell? Her 1968 memoir about servants’ life below the stairs of a stately English house was a direct inspiration for Downton Abbey and its popular predecessor, Upstairs, Downstairs.

Powell, born Margaret Langley in 1907, grew up in Sussex extremely poor. Her father, a house painter, and her mother, a charwoman or house cleaner, could barely support Margaret and her six siblings.

“I remember when we hadn’t anything left to use for warmth and no money to get coal,” she wrote in Below Stairs. “I said to Mum, ‘Get all the wood down. Let’s have a fire with wood.’ She took every single shelf there was in the rooms and she even took the banisters from the stairs. Things like this make you hard.”

Perhaps predicting her future success as a writer, Margaret won a scholarship to grammar school at age 13. But her parents couldn’t spare her, and sent her to work in a laundry by the time she was 15.

A year later Margaret found work as a kitchen maid in a stately Regency-style mansion in the posh Adelaide Crescent section of Hove, a town on England’s south coast. She recalled the first time she set foot in the house, which was home to a minister and his family:

“When my mother and I arrived at this house for the interview we went to the front door. In all the time I worked there, that was the only time I ever went in the front door. . . We were ushered into the hall and I thought it was the last word in opulence. There was a lovely carpet on the floor, and tremendously wide stairs carpeted right across, not like the tiny little bit of lino in the middle we had on our stairs. There was a great mahogany table in the hall and a mahogany hall stand, and huge mirrors with gilt frames. The whole thing breathed an aura or wealth to me. I thought they must be millionaires. I’d never seen anything like it.”

Powell died in 1984, but her legacy has been preserved – and not just through her memoir or shows like Downton. Chicago historian and actress Leslie Goddard has developed something of a specialty inhabiting the lives of famous women of yore. In an appearance in February, she took on the role of Powell, performing an adaptation of Below Stairs as the author herself.

In the audio above, you can hear Goddard perform as Powell. She describes the astonishing workload typical of a pre-war kitchen maid, and explains how the stark contrast between Powell’s impoverished upbringing and her newly lush surroundings eventually radicalized her politics.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Leslie Goddard performed at an event presented by Chicago Culinary Historians in February of 2013. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.

Robin Amer is a producer on WBEZ’s digital team. Follow her on Twitter @rsamer