Monday, January 23, 2012

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor by Rosina Harrison

   Rosina Harrison (Rose) always knew she would lead the life of a servant.  Service had been the livelihood of her family for generations, yet Rose had dreams beyond cooking, cleaning and laundry - she wanted to travel.  In early 20th century England, travel was a luxury that few could afford, so Rose found a way around her financial obstacles by becoming the personal maid to Lady Nancy Astor.  The Astors were a well-respected, Aristocratic family in England, and despite their American upbringing, the family was held in high political and social esteem (Lady Astor was the first woman to serve in British Parliament).  Rose served the Astors for 35 years, and in her many years of service she was exposed to the most intimate details of the daily lives of British Aristocrats.

  In her memoir, Rose describes her life as a Lady's maid, depicting the private details of her relationship with the Astors and the daily duties she was expected to perform, some of which include dressing and re-dressing Lady Astor up to 5 times a day, maintaining Lady Astor's personal chambers, and caring for the priceless family jewels and heirlooms.  As most servants did at the time, Rose lived with the Astors, which meant that she was on call at all hours of the day and night.  Lady Astor had lots of energy and was known to be quite eccentric, so many of Rose's tales are quite entertaining.  But Lady Astor was also a very stern, prideful woman, and her relationship with Rose often suffered under these traits.

  But even so, during her 35 years with the Astors, Rose was able to achieve her dreams of travel.  She accompanied Lady Astor all over Europe and the United States, where Lady Astor made sure that her favorite servant was able to sight-see to her heart's content, as long as she managed to complete her daily duties of course.  Some readers might find Rose's detailed descriptions of service boring and tedious, but a servant's life depends on their ability to manage the details, and Rosina Harrison was a top-tier servant.

   Rose may not have been a professional writer, but her story gives us a more accurate depiction of the running of an elite British household from the underbelly of the servants' quarters to the upstairs dinner parties with George Bernard Shaw, T.E. Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame), and a whole slew of of British Royalty.  If you're a huge fan of Downton Abbey like I am, then Rose's memoir should prove to be quite entertaining, and through her story we see that fact is not far from fiction at all.  Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor provides us with a real account of 20th century Lords, Ladies, maids, cooks, butlers, valets, and chauffeurs, and it's really quite remarkable to track the tremendous social change that occurred between Rose's birth in 1899 and the book's publication in 1975.

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