Below Stairs by Margaret Powell, originally published in 1968, is the classic memoir of a woman who worked her way up in service from kitchen maid to cook before retiring after her marriage to a milkman.
The book has been re-issued (even in e-book format!) because it is one of the sources used by the writers of the popular PBS/BBC series Downton Abbey. And yes, we are big fans Chez QG. Apparently the book was wildly popular in the UK when first published and created something of a sensation.
Margaret Powell vividly illustrates the division in the great houses between the wealthy noble families and their large staffs of servants. The houses themselves were physically divided with front and service stairs so that some servants seldom entered the part of the house used by the family. Class lines were rigid and mutually enforced on both sides.
Margaret was something of a rebel and always tried to make something of herself. She was an avid reader and one of the most poignant passages in the book relates her request to the mistress of the house she worked in to borrow books from its library. "Of course, Margaret," was the reply," but I didn't know that you read!"
Margaret not only read but later in life completed her education and got a college degree. She is a good writer but not always a fluid one. The book is a personal memoir, not an attempt at social history, and succeeds on those terms.
Readers will not find any of the plot lines of the television series but will better understand the world of its "downstairs" characters.