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.