“They Pander to their Readers’ Prejudices”: An assessment of the discourse behind the portrayal of life in service in print and screen

In the famous Yes, Prime Minister episode “A Conflict of Interest”, Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) advises the Prime Minister Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) not to worry too much about the Press demanding action on rumours of a scandal in the City until it is shown to be more than that, adding that “the only way to understand the Press is to remember that they pander to their readers’ prejudices.”

Sir Humphrey’s remark was on my mind as I re-read Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs which first came out in 1968 and was republished in 2011 to cash in on the interest generated by Downton Abbey.  Margaret Powell’s memoirs dealt with growing up in Hove then entering service as a kitchen maid at the age of 14 after leaving school; then working for a succession of households until her marriage. The book itself is briskly written and gives modern day readers a glimpse into a life of a urban working class girl in the days when many of the things we have today such as electricity, a welfare safety net, choice and better opportunities are frequently taken for granted. Reading Powell’s memoirs, she does come across as feisty and her descriptions are fairly graphic in the sense that one can easily feel being with her as she takes us through her childhood and the various households she’s worked for. Yet, I can’t help but think that she also comes across as bitter with a massive chip on her shoulder and a sense of entitlement. Her memoirs focused on her solely and not enough on her employers and colleagues, so one does not really get a complete picture of the households where she worked.

Below Stairs

When Below Stairs was published, it was the latest of a long line of memoirs from people who were in service before the Second World War; and being cited as an inspiration for the 1970s drama Upstairs, Downstairs and subsequently Downton Abbey has ensured that it has remained in print since its publication. One reason why I believe it has remained in print is because much of today’s historical discourse, particularly on the popular history front, still takes its lead from 1960s historiography, where the focus shifts away from “history from above” to “history from below” as well as debunking previous interpretations of historical events . Just like with Alan Clark’s The Donkeys which has meant that the phrase “lions led by donkeys” (supposedly said by a German general) has entered the popular imagination and is still spouted by members of the public despite Clark himself later admitting that he made it all up, Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs for better or for worse has coloured the public’s view of what life in service was like and for many has become the de facto source for a phenomenon that has now largely passed into history.

The Daily Mail featured a summary after its re-release under a sensationalist headline – Why downstairs HATED upstairs: The acerbic memoirs of a Twenties maid reveal what domestic staff REALLY thought of their masters and comments left by readers ranged from sharing their own families’ experience about being in service to disagreeing with the headline; while others resorted to  the usual ahistorical rhetoric that inevitably surfaces whenever there are articles about British history published in the media – especially the history of upstairs and downstairs and what masters and servants really thought of each other. The Daily Mail, perhaps as a way to sell more papers and generate discussion summarised the memoirs in such a way that it has led many people to make sweeping assumptions and generalisations based on the anecdotal evidence of one person.

Subsequent memoirs written by other people in service such as Rosina Harrison (The Lady’s Maid), Charles Smith (Fifty Years with Mountbatten), Hilda Newman (Diamonds at Dinner) and Flo Wadlow (Over a Hot Stove) have done little to stem the tide of sweeping assumptions and generalisations about life in service generated by Margaret Powell’s reminiscences. Perhaps it’s because they more or less were happy with the households they worked for and presented a different picture to that of Powell’s. True, they did express frustrations with the downside of life in service such as the long hours, the lack of time off and having to put up with the whims and caprices of others (be it their employer, immediate superior or colleagues) but they were also perks and they were thankful for having kind and considerate employers who made sure they were well looked after even when they had retired or outliving the master or mistress they served.

A more recent attempt to present another side of life in service was Mollie Moran whose own reminiscences, Aprons and Silver Spoons was published in 2013; and in my opinion this is a much superior account to Margaret Powell’s. She describes in greater detail not just life in service but also her colleagues and employers through frank yet compassionate character sketches which gives one a much more rounded picture of a fast fading world through the eyes of a fourteen year old girl. In my opinion as a history anorak, what makes Moran’s work better is her weaving of momentous events and people into her life story such as the First World War (where she had to live with the consequences of her father being gassed while serving at the Front), encounters with the British Union of Fascists (through a teenage crush that went wrong) and the opportunities to see the present Queen as a little girl playing in the gardens of Number 145 Piccadilly and the nearby parks. For Mollie Moran these events are not history; they are current events and through her one can see how events and people can make an impact no matter how small in an individual’s life. Unlike Powell, Moran viewed her time in service as her opportunity to leave the confines of and broaden her horizons beyond the Norfolk village where she grew up.

moran memoirs

The Daily Mail subsequently published a preview of Moran’s book and perhaps unsurprisingly the absence of a sensational headline meant that there were none of the comments similar to the ones generated by the serialisation of Powell’s memoirs. This in my view lends credence to and to paraphrase Sir Humphrey that the fact that Below Stairs did generate more comment especially with the rehashing of the same old ahistorical pronouncements about life in service proves that Margaret Powell’s account does pander to the prejudices of modern day readers compared to Mollie Moran’s. From a historiographical point of view, I believe that this demonstrates how much discourse on topics such as life in service is still dominated by the outlook of the 1960s.

The same comments emerge whenever there is a discussion of Downton Abbey and they are along the same lines as the Daily Mail’s excerpt of Powell’s memoirs. When the programme premiered in 2010, there were already viewers carping about the unreality of the way relationships between upstairs and downstairs are depicted with the easy familiarity that would have been unthinkable at the turn of the last century. Examples included Lord Grantham paying for Mrs Patmore’s eye operation, the buddy-buddy like relationship between Lady Mary and Anna the head housemaid and Lady Grantham simpering that she and her maid Miss O’Brien are friends. Many critics and viewers have viewed that this familiarity between the Crawleys and their servants has remained one of the programme’s biggest Achilles heel.


Other criticisms went further by accusing the programme of whitewashing the exploitation that servants were subjected to and perpetuating the myth of a philanthropic aristocracy. Many of these critics cited Margaret Powell’s memoirs to counter what they saw as Downton’s misrepresentation of life in service.

While I agree that the way life in service and relationships between upstairs and downstairs has been portrayed in Downton Abbey leaves much to be desired, Margaret Powell’s own experiences cannot be seen as fully representative of life in service. She mostly worked for middle class households and it’s easy to forget how diverse the service sector was. Not all of those who were in service worked for the aristocracy, there were those like Powell who worked for middle class households while others found themselves employed by lower middle class and upper working class families. Powell herself very much disliked the menial roles she was called on to fulfil, despised her employers and clearly thought she was made for bigger and better things, so she treated harshly anyone she regarded as holding her back from fulfilling her natural destiny, whether that was employers, colleagues or the social milieu in which she lived. This bias has to be remembered when reading her view of working in service.

The treatment of Margaret Powell’s reminiscences as gospel truth and the insistence that everyone in service was the victim of abject exploitation is so prevalent that it’s easy to forget that there were in excess of 2 million servants before the First World War and their experiences can’t be summed up by the reminiscences of one bitter woman whose life was not what she thought it should be. To say that all employers were exploitative and cruel is as much an exaggeration as saying all employers were like the Crawleys and it is dishonest to lump together all those in service and equally all employers as one monolithic block. Those who agree with Margaret Powell’s account and believe that all employers were the oppressors are falling into the trap of assuming that all servants were saintly and oppressed; there must have been gullible employers at the mercy of servants like Thomas or O’Brien. In addition there would have been servants who would have more to fear from a fellow servant than their employers or even the butler and housekeeper.

As I mentioned earlier, the depiction of relationships upstairs and downstairs in Downton Abbey leaves much to be desired and contrary to the impression given by the programme, servants apart from the uppers – lady’s maid, valet, butler and housekeeper – were not in daily contact with their betters. In fact their working lives were set up so they were not. The world of a big house reflected the reality that society was hierarchical and that was as true of the servants’ hall as elsewhere. Bus drivers didn’t expect to meet the king and housemaids didn’t expect to meet the earl; and today that is still the case for those working in large companies. How many can say that they have met the General Manager or CEO of the company or institution they work for? How many people have even met their local elected official much less their local MP or the Prime Minister?

People in my opinion would do well to remember that working in service was and is just the same as working anywhere else; individuals will have their own experiences and will not necessarily be representative of the sector in general. Margaret Powell’s time in service is one person’s view. Mollie Moran’s recent memoirs presented to us a different view and it doesn’t help our understanding of the past if people continue to accept Powell’s account as the sole authority, it ends up only confirming their biases about how awful service was. More than anything this insistence on clinging on to this sweeping generalisation that life in service was oppressive just as Downton Abbey’s cosy view of upstairs-downstairs relationship does a great disservice to all of us and overlooks the fact that everything about human experience cannot be seen totally in black or white but in various shades of grey.