For the well-to-do classes in early 1920s England, life was all six-course meals, silver tea service, handmade lace tablecloths and ironed shoelaces.
But for those literally beneath them, the world was significantly different: 15-hour work days, meager meals, ice-cold bedrooms, and so much time spent grating Parmesan cheese and potatoes that your fingers bled.
Such was the existence of Margaret Powell, one such British kitchen servant who went on to write about her experiences in "Below Stairs." Her 1968 memoir inspired the 1970s PBS television series "Upstairs, Downstairs." More recently, it's used as background for the current PBS hit "Downton Abbey."
Now, North Shore residents will get a chance to hear from "Powell" during an upcoming four-course high tea and literary talk scheduled for Feb. 10 at the Highland Park Community House, 1991 Sheridan Road.
Leslie Goddard, a historian and actress who serves as executive director of Graue Mill and Museum in Oak Brook, will embody Powell during her presentation, "Below Stairs: A Servant's Life in Early 20th-Century England." The presentation will give a peek into the life of the serving class in the era of Downton Abbey.
"It was incredibly hard work," says Goddard. "This was intense manual labor starting at 5:30 in the morning."
Goddard, dressed and speaking as Powell, will tell listeners about a typical day. After that early morning alarm came an endless array of chores.
Powell, who worked for 10 different British families from about the time she was 15 until she was 25, would be responsible for such daily tasks as cleaning the cast-iron, coal-fired kitchen stove, polishing the front door knocker, scrubbing the home's stone steps, cleaning and polishing all the family members' shoes, and ironing the shoelaces -- by first letting the iron heat up for about 30 minutes on the stove.
Then it was on to helping prepare breakfast and serve the meal for the family and other servants, cleaning the breakfast pots, pans and dishes and then spending the rest of the day helping make lunches and dinners.
"Everything was done by hand," Goddard says. So making chicken soup, for example, would take five or six hours as the servants went to the butcher for bones, then simmered them, skimmed the fat and grease from the top, and soaked up the remaining grease with sheet after sheet of paper.
Making potato chips was no easier. In an hour-long process, the help had to first scrub, then peel and slice potatoes paper thin before drying them. Then they would melt lard in a frying pan, drop slices in one by one, let them fry, watch them so they didn't burn, blot and then salt them.
Powell, who usually worked until 10 p.m. seven days a week, got half a day off a week. Her pay: about 24 British pounds a year (about $560), plus room and board.
The scenario may sound familiar to viewers of "Downton Abbey," whose servants live like Powell did, Goddard said. In fact, one incident in Powell's book closely resembles a scene in the show. In her memoir, Powell writes about a parlor maid who gets pregnant by the nephew of the mistress of the household, is dismissed with very little notice and presumably ends up homeless. A similar scenario is ongoing in "Downton Abby," in which housemaid Ethel Parks gets pregnant, is immediately fired, gives birth, and winds up as prostitute.
The tea and lecture is being sponsored by the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance, a Highland Park-based culinary anthropology group which explores unique food traditions and their cultural contexts in the Midwest. Admission is $55 ($65 at the door). Register at GreaterMidwestTea2013.eventbrite.com or by calling 1-800-838-3006. More information about the alliance is available at greatermidwestfoodways.com.
In addition to portraying Powell, Goddard performs as other historical figures including during a Feb. 27 event at the Highland Park Public Library where she will take on the role of Mary Chesnut, a Civil War diarist whose father was a wealthy planter and husband a top presidential aide. For more information on her talks, visit lesliegoddard.info.