Category Archives: Class

Book Review and Giveaway! Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor

ETA: I’ll be closing the comments section on this post at 5 p.m. ET on January 13

Here stateside many of us are eagerly counting the hours to the premiere of Downton Abbey’s second season on PBS (Sunday at 9 p.m; check your local station to confirm). The word from the UK is that this season is a bit of a dud, but I’ll still be watching simply because I love the cast of characters and am willing to give the anachronisms a pass.

Anyway, earlier this week I was contacted by Penguin Books to see if there was any interest in an autobiography they were reprinting called Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor. Written by Rosina Harrison, Lady Astor’s lady-maid of decades, it details what it was like to work “in service” during a bygone era of British aristocracy.* Since Rose grew up in the village of Ripon, which figures in Downton Abbey, Penguin wondered if I would be interested in reading an advance copy of the book. But of course!

Last night I crawled into bed early with my book, intending to skim a few pages, but I ended up reading a full three chapters. This simply written story starts by detailing Rose’s upbringing in a loving working-class family and how she knew from an early age her career would be working in service for her social superiors.

I was drawn in by the descriptions of Rose’s childhood and the expectations her parents — nay society — had for her. Children worked and worked hard at the turn of the 20th century. Almost as soon as Rose could walk, she was helping her mother with the backbreaking work of washing clothes (her mother, a laundress, took in the neighborhood aristocrats’ laundry). She was also responsible for polishing the stove each week (again, another grueling chore especially when you remember stoves back then ran on wood or coal) and helping her parents take care of their younger children. There’s no hint of complaint in her recollections, although she remarks:

“People have often said to me how lucky I was to be brought up in a village in the beautiful countryside with the freedom of the fields and lanes, the simplicity of life among animals and above all in peace. It sounds lyrical as I write it and perhaps in a way it was, but most people forget and sometimes I do that for the most part life was continual hard work even as a young child.”

She later writes that people often dismiss the struggle and low wages as relics of a different era, but she wrote:

“Things were different. There was no National Insurance, so there was the constant fear of getting ill, of being out of work, of growing old without a family to look after you and being buried in a pauper’s grave. There was no electricity, no sewerage, no running water, no refrigeration; fruit and vegetables came and went with the seasons.”

It’s clear that Rose is a smart girl, which serves her well in service. Her parents scrimp and save so she can be tutored in French and acquire finer sewing skills to become a proper lady’s maid, which will afford her the chance to travel and see the world, something Rose desperately wants to do. As a knitter myself, I giggled at her complaint of having to knit her father’s socks, which seemed to go on forever, round and round, but seemed to get done as she kept him in new socks for years. I got as far as Rose’s first placement, a lady’s maid to two daughters of a wealthy London family. Her experience here gives her insight into her role as a servant to the upper classes. She describes her relationship with one of the daughters:

“We weren’t friends, though if she was asked today she might well deny this. We weren’t even acquaintances. We never exchanged confidences, never discussed people, nothing we said brought us any loser [sic]; my advice might be asked about clothes or bits of shopping, but my opinions were never sought or given on her music or the people we met or on anything that was personal to either of us, nor did I expect it or miss it at that time. That was the accepted way of things.”

I thought that was a fascinating illustration of how times have changed, especially with those words “miss it at that time.” Today, such chilly separation between employer and employee would be unbearable, don’t you think?

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor was first published in 1975 and is being re-published by Penguin this month. Along with my copy, Penguin has send another copy for me to give away to a lucky Hail Britannia reader. All you have to do is comment below, making sure you add your e-mail address to the appropriate field — it will not appear on the site! — so I can contact you should you win the book. I’d also love to hear whether you’ll be tuning into Downton Abbey this Sunday — or, if you’ve already seen it, what you thought of the 2nd season. I’ll be picking a winner a random next Friday (lucky Friday the 13th!) and yes, the contest is open to anyone no matter where you live, although if you’re overseas it may take some time for the book to show up. Just can’t wait? Order the book on Amazon.

I am counting the hours until bedtime so I continue reading this treasure of a book. I’m eager to find out more about the relationship between Rose and her witty, yet often tempestuous, mistress.

* An interesting note. Lady Astor, whose birth name was Nancy Langhorne, was a spirited American lass who moved to England in the early 1900s after a disastrous marriage to a fellow American. In England, she met Waldorf Astor, also born in America but resettled in England, and married him, thus becoming Lady Astor. Later, Lady Astor became the first female member of Parliament. Which just goes to show, with enough money, even an American can stand in Parliament.

Settling in

Has it been nearly a month since I posted? Unpacking has taken much longer than I suspected it would. We’ve moved to a house with less square footage, and although we have a large storage container on our 2 acres to hold our overflow of “stuff,” we’re stuck doing a lot of sorting and deciding. It seems that every day I’m dropping flattened cardboard off at the recycling center or donating household items to shelters. It never ends.

Some random photos:

My cookbook collection, about 80 percent of it. There are a couple more boxes of books out in the storage container. Sadly, this is my collection after culling — I donated roughly 100 books before our move.

The livingroom is looking a wee bit more settled, but still there’s a lot of work to do. This is the scene that greeted me this a.m. after my son’s raucous playdate from yesterday and some furious knitting (mine) from last night. The sofa has been stripped of its slipcover for a washing, thus contributing to the disarray. The rattan chest a/k/a coffee table is going to be replaced shortly, and our tv stand, which is not in the photo, is awaiting a coat of paint. I can’t wait to do the big reveal on this project!

Lastly, I’ve discovered our Victorian-style wall sconces are excellent tools for sock blocking! This sock is one half of a pair destined for my step-mother down in Connecticut, a pair of Elizabeth Zimmermann Woodsman’s socks.

I’ve been doing a fair bit of knitting but unfortunately most of it is holiday related so no pictures. I cast on Thea Coleman’s Irish Coffee a couple weeks ago, but had to put it aside to focus on gift knitting. However as a reward for knitting three four hats over the last week, I purchased Anne Hanson’s Fartlek hat pattern a couple nights ago and will be knitting myself a nice warm cap for the holidays. Ok, yes, I find the name “fartlek” amusing (and so does my son), but I really like the design and have the perfect yarn for it:

It looks a bit more colorful in the photo than it really is. The lighting today is quite poor.

In other Anglophile news:

  • My hopes for the coming season of Downton Abbey on PBS next month have been dashed by this review in the Telegraph. SPOILER WARNING: Read at your own peril.
  • Speaking of Downton Abbey, this Daily Mail article about Julian Fellowes’ decidedly unaristo ancestors is a fun read and shows us the class divide in England is still alive and well.
  • Did you know that November was Wovember, a time to wear and celebrate wool? (I know I dug out my woolies!) Here’s a fascinating expose of retailers who erroneously label clothing or fabric as “wool.” I think this mostly happens in England; in America, wool means fabric made from the fleece of sheep or other fleecy animals or it refers to yarns spun from animal fleece. Will double-check on this!
  • Lastly, I’ve been enjoying — nay, loving! — the CraftLit podcast, which I listen to when I’m slogging though stockinette hell or walking our local bike path. Why it rocks? Half the podcast is taken up with craft talk, mostly knitting, and the other half is a recorded book from the public domain … and yes, my Anglophile friends, the books are mostly British! Host Heather Ordover has the most evocative voice and spot-on delivery. I’d listen to her read the ingredient list on a spray bottle of Roundup. And the lady knows her literature. I love that she prepares a little introduction to each chapter, offering tidbits on the social history of the time, explaining political history and etymology of words. (Who knew that Bram Stoker got off on the word “voluptuous”? I didn’t.) Anyway, it’s definitely worth a listen, and I heartily recommend Dracula, even if you’re not a fan of horror fiction. The readers are excellent and it’s truly a scary book.

The Queen is a great-grandmum

Last Wednesday, Peter Phillips and his wife, Autumn, became parents of a daughter, making Queen Elizabeth II a newly minted great-grandmother.

So today the newspapers are announcing the baby’s name.

Savannah.

Yes, Savannah Phillips.

Somewhere, Brooklyn Beckham and Paris Hilton are having a good giggle.

What do you think of the name? Fresh and modern, a nice change from the Georges and Beatrices? Or too chavvy for you?

Someday My Prince Will Come (or will he?)

Several weeks ago, a publicist at Penguin Books asked me if I’d be interested in receiving a copy of Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess, about a young American woman whose goal, for most of her life, was to marry into the British royal family … specifically, to marry Peter Phillips, Princess Anne’s son. I’m not enamored of the royal family, but I do have to admit, my curiosity was piqued to read about how one goes about snaring a Windsor.

Jerramy Fine, the author, was raised in Colorado mountain country, a place where rodeo, not polo, ruled, and where she spent her first 18 years convinced she’d been switched at birth. Her parents were bona fide hippies, but she imagined her real parents were English aristocrats on vacation in Denver. From her earliest years, Fine was fascinated with England — specifically, the British royals — and when she was six or seven, she saw Peter Phillips’ name in the line of succession and decided he’d be her prince someday, never mind that technically he’s not a prince. Thus began her quest for princessdom.

Ok, let’s stop. I  just don’t get princesses. At. All. Although I loved reading about queens and princesses when I was a child, it was because they tended to get their heads lopped off (Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Marie Antoinette), survived awful childhoods (Elizabeth I), or became pawns in intricate political intrigues (Mary Stewart, Jane Grey … both of whom also lost their heads. Literally.)  I’ve never wanted to be one, and instead, fantasized about a life in letters. I don’t like fluffy pink frou-frou. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I spotted a penis on the ultrasound at my four-month pregnancy checkup and thought, “Thank God — no princesses!” Sure, being a princess looks glamorous — lots of designer clothes and jewels, first-class travel, gorgeous digs — but the price for all this seems to be a loss of privacy and a highly restrictive life where you can never just be “normal.” No thanks.

In the first few pages of the book, Fine admits that everyone in her life knew she wanted to be a princess. She never hid or shied away from her intentions. When people told her she was living in a fantasy world, she writes, “My question was this: What’s so wrong with living in a fantasy world? Seriously. What’s so wrong about ignoring the conventions and practicalities of the so-called real world, and actually pursuing your childhood dream? Sometimes I think the ‘real world’ is just a phrase invented by adults to give credibility to the miserable lives they’ve created for themselves. Feel free to call me delusional, but I was someone on this planet who, no matter how silly it seemed, was actually listening to my heart — I trusted it, believed it, and followed it. And in my opinion, there was nothing more ‘real’ in this world than that.”

Hmm. As someone who’d frequently heard growing up I should give up on my dreams of becoming a writer for something more “practical,” I could identify. So I kept reading.

Unlike most girls who dream of becoming a princess, Fine’s desire never waned. All through high school, and even college, she kept a tattered picture of Peter Phillips taped to her mirror, and immersed herself in everything British and royal. Fine brilliantly contrasts her interests with her “real” life … a father with long hair who eventually becomes a cannabis priest, a mother who refused to wear a bra and rails loudly in supermarkets about food additives (my kind of woman), a skateboarding younger brother named Ezra. And it’s hilarious. As well as frustrating because I think we all know the horror of being young and stuck with family who just doesn’t get you.

Fine eventually makes it to England during a junior year abroad program, and sets the wheels in motion to meet her future husband. She makes a few friends in aristocratic circles, actually meets Princess Anne (her future mother-in-law!) at an event, and feels even more certain that the path she’s chosen is the right one. She returns to England as a graduate student, and this is where things get interesting. Fine begins to see that the England in her fantasy life doesn’t quite measure up to the England she’s living. First off, she’s at the London School of Economics, a haven for foreigners, not Brits, so she finds it hard to meet the natives. Then she discovers how very different Brits are from Americans … whereas Americans tend to welcome new friends, the British are far more reserved and prefer to hang out with people they’ve known for ages, interlopers need not apply. Yet Fine does manage to ingratiate herself into an aristocratic Oxford set, and participates in some hi-jinx with British men that further confuse her. During her stay, she experiences some highs and lows in her pursuit of Peter Phillips: she discovers he’s got a girlfriend (low), but she’s American (high), which means there’s hope for her.

Since we know that Peter Phillips ends up marrying a Canadian (and is, in fact, about to become a father and make Queen Elizabeth a great-grandma), we know that Jerramy Fine doesn’t get her prince. Or does she? You’ll have to read the book to find out. I thought Fine’s single-minded pursuit of her prince a little … well, mercenary. When she’s in England, she refuses to hang out with anyone who doesn’t have a British accent; then when she realizes variations in accents are indicative of social class, she becomes even more discriminating. But since the book has a satisfactory ending and I felt that Fine had learned something during her journey, her earlier behavior didn’t bother me. Indeed, what I liked about her was her refreshing honesty. She never hid her intentions from people who were sure to knock her down. And even if you have no interest in royalty or princesses, this memoir has enough commentary on Britain and British life to appeal to most any Anglophile.

Have you read Jerramy Fine’s memoir? What did you think? Add your opinion to the comment section below.

Is it eccentricity that unites Britons?

Yesterday I received notice from British bank First Direct of an amusing survey they’d done of 1,000 Britons that claims one in 10 Brits is an “eccentric” — that is, a person who’s creative, individualistic, and free-spirited — and that more than 32 million Brits exhibit eccentric traits. Famous Britons they deemed eccentric include Boris Johnson (the Mayor of London, above), Stephen Fry (actor/author), Vivienne Westwood (fashion designer), Boy George, Russell Brand, and the Osbournes.

I do tend to think of the British as being more eccentric than Americans; I assume it’s because the long-standing English class system encouraged the (mostly) upper-classes to develop charmingly bizarre personal habits that had to be tolerated by the classes below them. I can’t think of many American eccentrics, maybe because we tend to label anyone who marches to the beat of a different drummer as OCD or simply crazy. I came up with Andy Warhol, Hunter Thompson, J.D. Salinger, Julia Child, Michael Jackson, Pee Wee Herman, and Tim Burton, the latter who now lives in Britain, so go figure. I couldn’t think of one American fashion designer or figure who could be called eccentric, but the UK has (or had) Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, and Isabella Blow. Even Anna Wintour is a little “off.”

This trait is probably why I’m so fond of the British. What about you?

Want to learn how to social climb in England? Hire English Mentors

I thought it was a joke when I read in the Daily Mail that the Duchess of York participated in an advertisement for English Mentors, a service that promises to help children of foreigners fit into upper-crust British society.

It’s no joke, folks. This venture has a website, which includes details about the mentoring they offer, as well as must-see video. (Love the military guy!) If you’ve got an extra £100,000 sitting around, you can pack off your nose-picking Dmitri or chavvy Brittny to an English country house where a member of the British aristrocracy will show them the proper way to dine, dress, interview for boarding school, and stumble out of Mahiki at 3:15 a.m. without looking bleary eyed. Well, that last one I made up, but you get the idea. Around the halfway mark, I fully expected John Cleese to step in with, “And now for something completely different …”

Here’s a link to the video for English Mentors. Let me know what you think. I loved the little slip of Manchester United near the end of the vid — was this a subliminal message for the Beckhams and the Rooneys to sign their kids up pronto? Or children of Russian oligarchs or Arab sheiks need only apply?

A who’s who of British chick-lit

Tonight I was searching around for news on one of my favorite British authors (Katie Fforde), and I found this entertaining primer on British chick-lit, complete with a rating system for the social class each authoress tends to write about. If you like chick-lit, or you’re traveling someplace warm over the holidays and want something light to read on the beach, check out some of these titles.

If you like British chick lit, who are some of your favorite authors? I noticed Sophie Kinsella, for example, isn’t listed in this survey, probably one of the best-known Brit chick lit authors known here in the U.S.

A river runs through it

map of River Thames London

Thanks to an article in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times, I just learned that the U.S. Embassy is leaving its digs in London’s posh Grosvenor Square (one of my favorite Grateful Dead lines: “As I was walking around Grosvenor Square/not a chill to the winter but a nip to the air”) for a more secure compound to be built on the other side of the Thames.

The wrong side, according to some.

The article provides an interesting look at the rivalry between the tony north and the down-and-out south, a rivalry I was only slightly aware of. Due to my bizarre interest in epidemiology as a kid, I knew the southern side of the river was where plague victims were carted off to be buried, but I didn’t know that a cultural and social divide exists today. It sort of reminds me of that friendly rivalry between residents of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and now Brooklyn, like south London, is this hipster cool place to live.

As the article points out, the view from the new American embassy will be hard to beat — but leaving all those years of history at Grosvenor Square is sad.