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Great little insight into the real life of a domestic servant
on 9 July 2012
The review title pretty much sums it up. This is a real account, written by a real person who lived the life of a domestic servant in the early twentieth century. I do feel that other reviewers who criticise the lack of 'scandal' or complain that Ms Powell didn't push herself to have a better life are completely missing the point.
It is not a novel, designed to draw the reader into an intricate plot with twists and adventure. It is not the tale of 'rags to riches' or a romantic novel about the poor little servant girl who meets her Prince Charming and strolls off into the happy ever after. It is just one person's story about a world which no longer exists and which I believe, is a great little nugget of history which anyone can access. Seriously, if you or I were to write an honest account of our daily lives, how much of it would you consider to be of real interest except as a documentation of working life in the early 21st century?
Almost 100 years on, we have grown used to a society where boys and girls alike are educated to believe that they can reach the best of their potential in a career that provides both a healthy wage and job satisfaction (whether or not that is the reality in adulthood) Life for our grandmothers and great-grandmothers simply wasn't like that! You left school to start pulling your financial weight in the family home and most jobs were offered to those who asked provided the employer had the space, money and need for them - with employment law in its adolescence, CVs and references were rarely required. Margaret Powell's life was what it was; she would not have been encouraged to 'go for it' and even if she had the moral support from her family, she certainly wouldn't have had the financial backing to do so. She says herself she rarely had free time, which brings me on to the next point.
One reviewer accuses her of marrying the first man she met. Again, we are used to Disney and Hollywood, Bridget Jones and their ilk telling us that true love is just around the corner and it's all hearts and flowers when it comes together in the end. In the early twentieth century, while romance certainly existed, most young people were seeking a companion and a parent for their children - that's just what people did. With limited means to leisure time and privacy, and no reliable means of contraception, Margaret Powell and her peers didn't have the luxury of trying out a different boyfriend year in year out until they found Mr Right. Marriage was the next step in a young woman's life and usually signified an end to dead end drudgery jobs. This trend reduced gradually after the World Wars, but the concept of wives and mothers having a professional career is a very modern trait.
On the subject of Powell's 'moans' about modern life, yes I will admit that I found them a little tiresome at first. However in the context of the publication date, you have to remember that the world had moved very quickly in a short space of time and for Powell's generation, harking back to the 'good old days' was a common feature. I'd go so far as to say that older generations have always had rosy tinted specs views of their salad days, but would be more subtle in committing it to paper now for fear of coming across in the vein of the famous Monty Python sketch!
As a companion to the likes of Downton Abbey, this isn't going to enthrall the reader with tales of bed-hopping aristocrats and lovelorn servants, but as an understanding of real life in service, this is a wonderful piece of history.