The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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June 1, 2012

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor

When  he spoke to me about Lady Astor's character Mr. Lee was guarded, chosing his words very carefully. He told me later that he hadn't wanted to say anything that might influence my opinion of her. H described her as a character, a great personality in her own right. 'She is not a lady as you would understand a lady, Miss Harrison,' I can remember him saying.  By that he meant that she didn't conform to what society thought a lady's behaviour should be and to what had been my experience of ladies in service up till then. 'You won't find her easy,' was his final remark, but it was not a criticism. I understood him to mean that she was a challenge and that is one was able to meet it, it would be rewarding; or am I perhaps being wise after the event? Anyway I don't propose to sum her ladyship up as I have Lord Astor, because it would be beyond me. what I felt about her can only come out as I write.

If you have lingering symptoms of Downton Abbey Withdrawal (and all the best people do), this memoir is one of the many that have been recommended to tide us over till next January.  It's the same kind of upstairs-downstairs story, but set a little later into the 20th century.  The author, Rosina Harrison, was born in 1899, and went into service in 1918. For 35 years (from 1929 to 1964), she was lady's maid to Nancy Astor, the Virginia-born heiress who married Waldorf Astor, heir to the Astor family's wealth and his father's newly-minted peerage,  and became the first woman elected to the House of Commons.

This book was a quick and engaging read, and a wonderful way to spend my hours on the T this week. Rose is a wonderful character, herself -- forthright, feisty, attentive, affectionate, opinionated, adventurous, loyal -- and the portrait she paints of Nancy Astor is fascinating.  Lady Astor was clearly a difficult woman, often unbearable, and Rose had more innate respect for Lord Astor and their four children. Maybe it's just me, though, but I often found myself asking the same question that Rose asks herself, wondering whether the things she remembers herself saying were really the things she said, or if she was looking back, as all of us do, and sometimes remembering the things she wished she had said. I hope it was the first thing, because these women seemed to have been very good for each other.

Rose was originally published in 1976, and recently re-issued by Penguin Books.  I read a preview copy graciously provided by the publisher through Netgalley.


JoAnn said...

This is already on my wishlist and would be a perfect follow-up to Below Stairs. What I really need is more reading time...

Lou said...

I enjoy "Downton Abbey" and still have to watch "Upstairs Downstairs" on DVD.. I guess this book is actually made for me also :)

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