When I began to research the lives of twentieth-century domestic servants, I was surprised by the number of servants’ memoirs that had been published in the second half of the century. It seemed that readers in the 1970s, with Upstairs, Downstairs and The Forsyte Saga on the telly, couldn’t get enough of tales featuring mob caps, liveried footmen and butlers bowing at the waist and murmuring, ‘Madam will see you now.’
The memoirs were as varied as you would expect, but whereas most of those who had worked in grand country houses remembered the old days of jugging hare and servants’ balls with nostalgia, some butlers’ recollections were slightly more risqué. Ernest King in particular, writing in the 1950s, was daringly indiscreet – in his inimitable butlerese – about his time with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (he disapproved of the Duchess); later on he worked for the newly-wed Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip and sniffed at the small household economies that marked the modern royals.
But by far the most successful of these former servants-turned-writers – in fact, for a short time a one-woman publishing phenomenon – was the former cook Margaret Powell, whose irrepressible voice contrasts vividly with the gentility of so many of her fellow memoirists.
Born into working-class poverty on the south coast before the First World War, 14-year-old Margaret had no money to take up the grammar-school place she was offered and went instead into domestic service, as her mother had before her. Though she worked her way up through the ranks from kitchen maid to cook, Powell always railed against her servitude and secretly read Marx, G. K. Chesterton and George Eliot in her garret bedrooms. Eventually she married, raised two sons and then returned – money was short – to labour again at wealthier women’s housework as a charlady, the post-Second World War version of the maid-of-all-work.
But post-war Britain was a different world – and with characteristic vigour Margaret Powell seized the new opportunities it presented. She went to evening classes, got a degree, and continued reading voraciously. In 1969, w
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