Tuesday, March 5, 2013

book reviews: Upstairs & Downstairs and Below Stairs

The backstory: My obsession with love of Downton Abbey has inspired me to learn more about the period and customs of British country homes at that time.

The basics: Upstairs & Downstairs: An Illustrated Guide to the Real World of Downton Abbey is part nonfiction, part coffee table book about typical life in an Edwardian country home.

My thoughts: Most of what I know about this time, I've learned from Downton Abbey. I was curious to learn more about the time, in part to better assess how true Downton is to history. Upstairs & Downstairs was an informative, engaging look into life at the time. Divided into sections based on a typical day. This structure allowed author Sarah Warwick to examine the roles of those upstairs and downstairs simultaneously.

There was much that was familiar from Downton, but I also learned many things that added more nuance to my understanding of the servant's roles on the show. What I enjoyed most about this book, however, were the pictures and illustrations. Visually, the book is both beautiful and fascinating. Through a combination of photographs from the time, drawings, and diagrams, I gained much appreciation for the visual elements on Downton. Ultimately, the visuals in this book are the most enjoyable pieces, but the extensive outline of the general roles, qualifications and pay for servants was quite illuminating.

The verdict: If you're already familiar with the historical detail of this period, there likely isn't much new here. If, however, you want to learn more about the period and its customs, Upstairs & Downstairs is a visually interesting, informative work.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 128 pages
Publication date: September 4, 2012
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Upstairs & Downstairs: The Illustrated Guide to the Real World of Downton Abbey from the Book Depository or Amazon (no Kindle version.)

The basics: Below Stairs, originally published in 1968, has been reissued with the Downton Abbey craze and the new subtitle "The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey." There are glowing quotes from Julian Fellowes and Dame Eileen Atkins (co-creator of Upstairs, Downstairs) on the cover.

My thoughts: From the first pages, it's clear Margaret Powell is not actually writing a conventional memoir. while she tells the story chronologically, it read more like a transcript than a memoir. It's clear she's dictating her life thoughts on her life, including many years in different kitchens. I did appreciate Powell's thoughts and candor, but despite being told so conversationally, if I had not watched Downton or already read Upstairs & Downstairs, I would not have understood as much of the power dynamics present. Powell throws around different names of servants without providing the context explaining the differences. Knowing the different role these servants played, it was interesting to compare the houses in which she worked.

The verdict: While the story is interesting and I appreciated Powell's candor, the writing lacked finesse, which hindered my enjoyment of the tale. If you're looking for insight into the downstairs life in Edwardian times and don't mind conversational writing, then you'll likely enjoy Below Stairs and its authenticity. Below Stairs is a quick read, but it's far from a literary masterpiece.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: May 1968 (reissued January 3, 2012)
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Below Stairs from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. Hmm..I was pretty interested in Below Stairs until I read your review. I loved Downton until the season finale, then I was just pissed. Haha. Seriously, though, I'll probably choose not to pick that one up. Sad it wasn't better!

  2. The first book looks and sounds really enticing to me, but the second sounds like it was a little underdeveloped and drab. I have yet to finish season 2 of Downton, for I am doling it out to myself in small segments! I need to get watching!

  3. I've seen books like these popping up here and there, and like so many other Downton lovers, I cannot WAIT to lay my little paws on them.


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