Tuesday 20 December 2011

Read in 2011 - 29: The Lady's Maid

A few weeks ago, my mother-in-law, who often provides me with reading material, has done it again: she sent a small parcel from England and told me it was not for Christmas, so I did not have to wait, and opened it immediately. It contained two books, one of which I finished reading last night: "The Lady's Maid - My Life in Service" by Rosina Harrison.

Rosina (called Rose by most people) Harrison was born in 1899 in a small village in Yorkshire, near Ripon, an area I know quite well because my mother-in-law and one of my sisters-in-law and her family live there.
She came from a hard-working family, her mother doing the laundry for the family at the "big house" (Studley Royal) and her father working as a stonemason, topping the family's small income with the occasional tolerated poaching on the vast grounds of Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey.
Rose had two sisters and a brother, and all were expected to do their significant part to keep things going for the household, and they did. She describes the atmosphere in the family a very loving one, and remained a devoted daughter until both her parents died.
At school, Rose turned out to be so intelligent and eager to learn that she soon learnt everything the humble village teacher in Aldfield could teach her. She had an ambition: she wanted to travel and see the world. One day, she confided in her mother, who soon came up with a solution: Rose was to smarten herself up and go into service, not as some house or kitchen maid, but as a Lady's maid, which would mean she would accompany her Lady everywhere, including her travels.

About her parents, Rose says:

"They could walk head high. They worked hard, they lived well, they looked after their own and helped others, they brought up a happy family, they gave us all the will to work hard and the knowledge of the satisfaction of a job well done. It wasn#t the kind of teaching that was going to bring us a fortune, but it was a good grounding for the sort of jobs that were available to us at that time and it must have been rewarding to them both that they had their children's love and affection to the end."

At 18, Rose started her first job in service, as what was then called a Young Lady's maid, or sometimes a schoolroom maid, her charges being the 18- and 12-year-old daughters of a Lady Tufton.
About four years later, she went to work for Lady Cranborne, feeling she was now ready to be a fully fledged Lady's Maid, and hoping for a better paid and more interesting job. After five years with Lady Cranborne, she was still earning the same, and since her requests for a raise were rudely refused, she decided it was time to move on. She did travel to Italy and other places with Lady Cranborne, though, so the ambition she'd had as a young girl started to be fulfilled.

By chance, she happened to come across Lady Astor during Ascot week which her employer, Lady Cranborne, spent at the Astor's country estate in Cliveden. Little did she know that this was going to be one of the places she would live at most frequently for more than 35 years!
Lady Astor employed Rose first for her daughter, and it was with her that Rose first crossed the Atlantic ocean and went to America.
In 1929, Lady Astor decided she wanted Rose to work for herself, and it was going to stay that way for 35 years, until Lady Astor's death.

A lot has been written about Lady Astor. She was the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat and wife of one of England's wealthiest lords. By many of her contemporaries, she was described not only as very beautiful, but as arrogant, headstrong, unloving and tempestuous, and Rose came to experience all this first hand.
But she knew her Lady also as a kind and caring woman, who would go to great lengths to help a friend in need, and especially the way she treated Rose's mother showed her soft side.

While the two women often had fierce rows, proving that Rose's wit was just as sharp as Lady Astor's, over the years a friendship developed that made it nearly impossible for the two of them to be seperate from each other.
One of the things that influenced this strong bond between the two women most was the war.
During the 2nd World War, the family mostly stayed in Plymouth, where Lord Astor was Mayor. Several times they were in real danger for their lives, but that never stopped the couple to go out and make sure help went to the people who needed it most.

After the war, Lady Astor resumed her extensive travelling, with Rose always in tow. Neither got any younger, and eventually, travelling became less and less frequent, as did entertaining.
Lady Astor died in 1964 at 84. Rose retired to Worthing, to live in the bungalow she had bought for her mother from her wages, and died in 1989.

While this book does nothing to endear Lady Astor to its readers, it is an honest and interesting account of what life was like in service. This was a different era, and a way of life so different of what most of us have today, that it sometimes leaves you wanting to cry out at the injustice and offense a lot of these people endured.
It is interesting to learn about how a big estate was run, what travelling with a Lady meant in terms of preparation and during the actual trip, how many people worked behind the scenes to make entertainment on a big scale possible, and what was implied in taking care of a lady's wardrobe at the time.

The book is easy to read, like a novel, but it is an autobiography, and one I truly enjoyed reading.


  1. Hello:
    This looks like a most intriguing read and will definitely be a book that we shall seek out. The whole area of life in the English Country House during the late C19 and early C20 holds a fascination for us, so we are certain that we should enjoy the 'Lady's Maid'.

  2. Jane and Lance, I am quite sure you will enjoy this, yes. It does not come across as scholarly as any studied outsider's view would have to, and it is not pretentious or trying to impress people with "oh, me, the poor victim" kind of scenes, but simply the account of a woman whose life and work were inseparable from each other for many years.

  3. Oh, this is my kind of book! When we saw the Royal Pavillion in Brighton, all I was really interested in was the kitchen area, with the huge clock on the wall thinking of all those working there racing against time to get things perfectly done. (By the way, the Royal Pavillion was amazingly tacky, I thought I was terrible to think so, but then I read that Queen Victoria didn't care for it either, so I felt justified!)
    Lucky, lucky you to have this book arrive in a package for you! And then, to know you must have English chocolates on the way to you too!

  4. This sounds fascinating. It's always good to have recommendations. Thank you!

  5. Kay, the Christmas packages from England have all arrived already and are sitting here, waiting to be opened on Christmas morning :-) I'd be quite disappointed if there wasn't any chocolate in there somewhere...
    Never been to Brighton myself, but a glimpse behind the scenes always appeals to me.

    You are welcome, Frances!

  6. Okay, I am adding it to the list! Sounds like a great story. I am sure I will love it.

    Wanted to say thank you for your kind words and sympathy these last few weeks. It really means a lot to me. It came as a pleasant surprise to find such support and sympathy from my blog friends. I will never forget the great kindness you have shown.

    I hope you have a great week.


    p.s. I am reading The Princess Bride (Goldman) right now - absolutely loving it. Have you read it?

  7. I enjoy this sort of autobiography much better than those written by the rich and famous who so often have an axe to grind. I, too, shall seek it out.

  8. Elizabeth, I have indeed read The Princess Bride many years ago, when I was about 19 and still studying at Librarian school; I loved the book and regret that I still have not seen the movie!

    Yes, GB, trouble with the rich and famous is that most of their autobiographies are predictable and self-centred to the point of boring (of course they ARE self-centred, that's what they are autobiographies for, but I think you know what I mean).