I blew through Margaret Powell's completely enjoyable 1968 memoir Below Stairs* in two nights.
Supposedly one of the inspirations for the popular Masterpiece Theatre series Downton Abbey (as well as the earlier popular series Upstairs, Downstairs), Powell tells the story of her years spent working "in service" for the upper class in pre-WWII Great Britain, first as a kitchen maid and then as a cook. The second oldest of seven children (she's philosophical about her mother's large family--"You see that was the only pleasure poor people could afford. It cost nothing--at least at the time when you were actually making the children. You could have babies forevermore. Nobody bothered about doctors. You had a midwife who came for almost next to nothing"), she was sent out to work when she was fourteen, first in a few random jobs and then at a laundry, until she started as a kitchen maid at age fifteen.
I enjoyed the hell out of every minute of reading this book. I'm not sorry, though, that it wasn't longer--it was just the perfect, 176-page, mindblowing, hilarious little account. I liked everything about it, especially the earthy bits. And to call this book earthy would be to vastly understate the term "earthy." Consider this tale, from one of the more untraditional households in which she worked:
"It this somewhat bizarre household I used to have to go and get my orders while Mrs. Bishop was in the bath. I was horrified at first because I'd never seen a nude figure, not even a woman, before. It was amazing, after a couple of weeks I got quite used to it, and I'd sit on the edge of the bath, while she used to tell me what she wanted.
One morning at ten o'clock I went to the bathroom. I'd got so used to going there I just used to knock and walk in without waiting for an answer. One this particular morning, to my horror, instead of seeing a very flat, nude, white body laying there, there was a huge, black, hairy one, standing up in the bath. It was an Italian. Well, it was the first time I'd ever seen a full-scale appendage in my life. And after having had a look at it I could quite see why Adam rushed to get a fig leaf! I would have too if I'd discovered I had an object like that! The Shock! It took me about a week to get over this thing." (p. 142.)
Now if that doesn't make you laugh out loud I give up. But rest assured Margaret's no prude--later on she's annoyed with a beau who won't take her into the pub because beers make her a bit amorous. The descriptions of work are also unbelievable.** It's one of those rare nonfiction books that truly transports you--check it out.
*Please note: this is another book Rick reviewed at RickLibrarian.
**And here I've been complaining because I don't have a dishwasher! I'm so spoiled.