Books Magazine

Below Stairs by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick (1913)

By Erica

Review by Thecla W:

Priscilla Day is 12 at the beginning of the novel and living with her parents. Mr Day has lost his job and they are poor. Mrs Day is thinking about Priscilla’s future and concluding that soon she will have to go into service like her two older sisters and as she herself had before her marriage.

At 14 Priscilla starts as a skivvy in the village, then a maid in the household of Mr and Mrs Masters. Mrs Masters is a friend of her mother’s but more prosperous and has a son, Harry, to whom Priscilla is attracted. Harry begins to court a local girl and Priscilla decides to move away and gets a job in  London.

The rest of the novel shows Priscilla’s development. She has various jobs in service and becomes a well-trained parlourmaid. She returns to the village,taking a job in a house near  her parents. She meets Harry again and starts walking out with him. She is not happy in her job; the mistress of the house constantly finds fault with the servants.She is also trying to bully a young heiress who lives her into marrying her wastrel of a son.Priscilla helps the young woman and the expected happy endings materialise.

Mrs Sidgwick wrote many romances in a long career. This one has the usual charm and a happy ending but the romantic part of the plot seems to be relatively unimportant, certainly compared with Priscilla’s career.

Priscilla first gets to know and is attracted to Harry at the beginning of the story. Then in the last quarter of the novel she returns to the village and the relationship develops. In between, while she is working in London, she hears little of him and walks out with other young men, although none of these relationships become serious. Harry is a pleasant young man but Mrs Sidgwick seems to have little interest in developing his character. In fact her interest lies not in Priscilla’s romantic life but in her life as a young girl in service.

She is very good on telling domestic details. She portrays with great sympathy Mrs Day’s worries about her family and their poverty. There is very little money coming in,they are underfed and some meals are just bread and treacle. Mrs Day does some work at home plucking and dressing poultry and the unpleasantness of this work, with feathers everywhere, is well described.

As is Priscilla’s first day in service,helping out at the Vicarage as a skivvy. She is willing to work but no one helps her. The permanent servants don’t explain anything to her. For example,she is given a coal scuttle and is pointed in the direction of the cellar. But she can’t reach the coal easily and takes a long time. Then the coal scuttle is too heavy for her to lift easily and she spills some coal on the carpet. She is berated and has her ears boxed.

Mrs Sidgwick takes us through Priscilla’s various jobs, showing her growing up as she gains experience.There are different career paths: she could become a kitchenmaid and later a cook; a nursery maid or, Priscilla’s choice, a parlourmaid.

Some of the mistresses she works for treat their servants well, others do not. Throughout Priscilla has to be alert to the need to remain respectable and leave each post with “a character”. In one household a governess who dislikes her, accuses her (wrongly) of stealing a brooch. In another, one of the other maids steals and for a while it seems that Priscilla might be implicated. She is dismissed by one mistress after her sister stays the night with her while the master and mistress are away.

Priscilla’s adventures in these households are certainly more vivid than her romance with Harry.

I found a review of this novel in The Spectator (20th September 1913, page 22).

The reviewer begins by considering the attitude of novelists and dramatist towards domestic servants and doesn’t mention Mrs Sidgwick until the last third of the article. The other writers referred to are Thackeray, J.M. Barrie,Walter Scott, Dickens and Tolstoy. Rather unfair, I felt, to compare Mrs Sidgwick,turning out year by year her agreeable romantic novels with no pretension to great literature, to these writers.

When the reviewer does get to Below Stairs it seems that it is the subject matter which is unsuitable:

“…the action throughout the greater part of the book takes place in the kitchen, the scullery or the servants’ hall. And it cannot be denied that the fidelity of the recital impairs its attractiveness. Priscilla herself has a certain daintiness and distinction, but her associates are for the most part sly and squalid. The story,in fine, comes as near being dull as a story by Mrs Sidgwick can, and it introduces us to a larger proportion of actively disagreeable people than we like. Still, no good chatelaine should miss reading a book which throws a good deal of dry light on the problems of domestic service, and is written in Mrs Sidgwick’s admirably crisp and incisive style.”

For me, it is exactly the “fidelity of the recital” and Mrs Sidgwick’s sympathetic treatment of a servant’s life which make this novel interesting.

 


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