Servants' Hall: A Real Life Upstairs, Downstairs Romance (Below Stairs Book 2) - Margaret Powell

Took me a while to find the time to read this. Somehow I just never seemed to have had the time to read it on my breaks at work or be able to stay awake to read it at home. Oh, well... This sat in my drafts folder for an extra month too as I tried to find time to pick apart the quotes that I had saved and record my thoughts about them. Et voila~

 

-- "An extensive vocabulary was in no way comparable with the right accent." One of the lessons in a business class I took was about how you can't discount the oil executive's intelligence just because he has a Texan accent... dialectal prejudices are a real thing!

 

-- "The tea was strong and black... Just like the way Mother made it for my father if he was in work, and if she had the money. When it was weak tea, my father would say, 'What's this then? Water bewitched and tea begrudged.'" That last bit would probably be amazing embroidered on a tea cozy.

 

-- "...but it wasn't easy then for an unmarried daughter to be independent. Miss Helen had no income of her own, hadn't been brought up to work and, furthermore, was rather plain." The descending order of importance in necessary feminine traits for independence: money, skill, and beauty.

 

-- "Young Fred said he had liked talking to me, but personally I'd have derived far more pleasure and satisfaction if he had seized me in a violent embrace and kissed me passionately. A good brain was something but a lovely face would have earned more in dividends." Haha, this is the truth, ain't it?

 

-- "Doris made us laugh even more by saying there was a seventeen-year-old girl at the orphanage who hadn't any hair at all; not on her head, under her arms or down below. But it wasn't the poor girl's bald head that the matron cared about, it was the baldness down below; matron said it was indecent." Huh, how times have changed! Reminds me of that 'unspoken defense against unwanted sex' phenomena thing - ladies not shaving; interesting morals contrast. 

 

-- "And I thought... how difficult it is for the poor to be romantic. They have nowhere to go for privacy. If you take a boyfriend home, your family, having only the one sitting-room, are always there. So it's 10p at the pictures, fish and chips in a newspaper, and kissing as far away from a street lamp as possible. It's easy for the rich to have a 'grande passion'; they can dine, drink and dance to induce the mood, and have somewhere to retire for the privacy and pleasure." This reminds me of the first book by Margaret Powell where she alludes to the fact that her parents had so many children, despite being too poor to care for all of them, because sex was the cheapest source of entertainment, and the consequence was more children. The economic influence of wealth on culture (and/or behavior?). Compare with this piece from later in the book: "Most of our male conquests were measured by the degree of generosity they showed in buying us chocolates, a decent seat in the cinema and a drink afterwards. But in return for this they expected, and we were prepared to give, a certain amount of petting such as kissing and hugging in dark corners; certainly nothing more than that, though occasionally more was attempted. // No doubt the daughters above stairs were not required to give anything in exchange for an evening's entertainment, but then their escorts had not needed to work long and arduous hours to acquire enough money to take a girl out." There is also the social obligation or expectation that the woman should repay the man in... something... for the fact that he spent money on her. My contemporary mindset is disgusted by this while at the same time... huh.

 

-- "We wanted to get married not just to get out of domestic service, but because to be a spinster was looked upon almost with contempt as indicating a woman who lacked what it takes." Again, the difference in morals between today and then when this was written and the time she was writing about even further before that. I suspect the later line: "Lack of money, with the approach of old age and inability to work, was a constant anxiety to domestics." Also had a ring of truth to it. Especially in a society where work for women was limited to begin with. Sharing the burden with a marital partner is a feasible solution.

 

-- "One of my history books describes the [General Strike] as 'one of the most controversial and significant events of the inter-war years', but at the time it made little or no impression or difference to us in domestic service." A topic that fascinates me as I become old enough to read events that happened in my lifetime in history books taught to children today. Was it really as bad or as good? How does the teaching of history distort the actual history itself?

 

And then there is the crux of the second book, the "plot" that elicits the advertisement slogan of "True life inspiration for Downton Abbey!" or whatever it was on the library's page. The circumstances of fellow maidservant Rose after she marries the heir of the household they all work for. And it doesn't go well at all... "...I for one remembered what young Fred had said... apropos of Rose and Gerald. 'I think that it's Gerald who will regret it'. What was Rose giving him in return for a lovely home, beautiful clothes and a life of ease? She refused to acquire an education, to read about current events; as an intellectual companion she was hopeless; now we heard that she was loth to be a bed-mate. And although she was even prettier now than when he'd fallen in love with her, Gerald had a right to expect more out of marriage than just gazing at a pretty face."

 

Does he? But on the other hand, doesn't he? In the fictional world, Rose would be the hailed protagonist and we would feel sympathy for her, but in this true-life account, Rose is not portrayed as sympathetically. She clings to her family's ideals which heightens the class differences between her and her husband, and she absolutely refuses to compromise with him in any way. Over time, she is noted to be as uncompromising as her mother, Mrs. Lawton, to the point where this is: "I couldn't argue with Mrs. Lawton... but I did not agree with her firmly held opinion that only disaster could follow a deviation from the master-servant relationship; that above and below stairs were so divided by class, education and lineage, they could never mix. If Rose had not been so stubborn and narrow-minded, so determined not to change from the Rose Lawton of a back street in Manchester to being Mrs. Rose Wardham, mistress of a fine house and servants; if she had acknowledged her husband's genuine desire to make his wife socially acceptable, then the marriage could have been a success." That Rose rues the upper-class expectations of her new status while enjoying the luxuries (fine clothes, a house, servants of her own) further divorces her from the sympathy of the reader, while also underlining the envy of her friends in the story - Margaret and Mary - both of whom are confident they would have changed to suit their (wealthy) husband's tastes in a heartbeat. Yet is that really better?

 

Before they can seem too mercenary, this relatable bit is mentioned at the end of Mrs. Lawton's rant about what marriage meant to women of her age and status: "'What's love got to do with it? That's not what marriage is all about. Marriage is leaving your parents' home to look after your man, have his kids, make one shilling go as far as five, and keep a clean, respectable and God-fearing home.' // Mary and I looked at each other and I knew the same thought was in her mind; that such a description of marriage was far removed from our ideas on the subject." Perhaps it is the difference in expectations of romanticism and pragmatism in a relationship that I, as a reader in the 2010s, am bothered by.

 

Then there are these last two quotes. The first I find terribly relatable because of how true it is to have your expectations of the outside bashed by the reality of the inside and contrasted by those who live there: "The cottage was very pretty, creeper-covered and thatched roof, just like a picture-postcard cottage. But of course postcards cannot show the drawbacks to what appears to be picturesque - and here they couldn't have shown the tiny leaded window panes that excluded the sunlight, the lack of piped-water, electricity and drainage, the erratic path - well, erratic anyway in the pitch dark for visitors - to the primitive lavatory at the bottom of the garden. To us three city girls, one night only was a laughable experience, but I'm sure we'd never have coped with the lack of amenities as did Elsie's mum. She'd always lived in the cottage and was used to it."

 

But the last quote, here, is the one that reminds me what I disliked about Ms. Powell's narration. Is this a tendency that crops up as we age? I feel that I am starting to do it myself, but why do I do it? Why do we look back at the past as being better, when really it was probably just as bad or worse, we just didn't pay it no mind at the time? Too much time reflecting? A change in how bad things happen or are shared, as is the case with the spread of instant news media? What is it? Anyway, here's the tone shift that often occurs in the middle of narrative bits:

 

-- "Yet there was one vast difference between the terrible Depression of the early thirties and living in England now. In spite of Mr Lawton's bitterness against the government, he, and the tens of thousands like him who'd lost their jobs and were living on the poverty line, never resorted to the violence and vandalism that prevails today. Nobody of my generation could ever have dreamed that the day would come in England when it wasn't safe to walk through the streets in the evening for fear of being mugged, when quiet country lanes and city parks were to be avoided if one was alone. How smugly did we read about the violence in America and say, 'It can't happen here'. Of course there always have been people who are just plain 'bad', but at one time if they were caught, they had to pay for their crimes; now they get therapy."

 

So preachy? Yes. But otherwise an interesting story. Don't read it for the Downton Abbey angle, however, for you will just be disappointed.