"What the Help Really Saw "
Margaret Powell's sharply observed memoir, "Below Stairs," first printed in Britain 50 years ago and only now being published in America, has been hailed by Julian Fellowes, the creator of "Downton Abbey," as one of his inspirations for the television drama. The book stands out in the tradition of literature about servants for being a true account of a life spent in domestic service, although the incidents it relates are as vividly entertaining and disturbing as anything found in fiction.
. . ."What the help saw" has long been a popular theme in English letters. Perhaps the earliest example of the genre is Chaucer's engagingly profane take on employer-employee relations in the Cook's Tale from "The Canterbury Tales." There are classics from more recent times, too, of course: "Esther Waters" by the Victorian novelist George Moore (in which the heroine is the lowest of the low, a kitchen maid who is seduced and discarded but triumphs against the odds); P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves stories, which provide an irreverent angle on the symbiotic relationship between body servant and aristocratic booby; and, most recently, Kazuo Ishiguro's poignantly ironic portrait of the demise of a great house in "The Remains of the Day."
One of the vivid points which Margaret Powell makes is that the work was extremely hard and the hours very long.
This has been the case all over the world for most of time. Today few Brits and Americans are engaged in agriculture, which used to demand almost everyone's attention most of the time.
We think it's fair to say that the free economy and British inventions of the last three hundred years have liberated millions of people from some of the poorest-paid and hardest work.
Oh it couldn't have been done without good work! The work of associations determined to win a fair wage and decent working conditions, the help of the government protecting patents and copyrights, the contributions of ordinary people defending their clean air and water and common land, the generosity of many people supporting grammar schools and students (Margaret Powell had won a scholarship to a grammar school), the kindness of many people helping each other. There is a lot of giving that goes into the lives most of us in the West lead today. . .