With all the recent furore and fascination with the upstairs/downstairs dynamic (mainly courtesy of Downton Abbey), to which I have not been immune, I was delighted when I was given this book.
The true story of a Yorkshire girl in service and her 35 years as Lady Astor’s maid is riveting. It is packed with anecdotes, old-fashioned wisdom, and tales featuring some of the most prominent figures of the time. It is also an insight into the days in which nothing was thought of moving flowers and plants for the Astors’ weekly journey between Cliveden and London, and a lady didn’t dare dream of venturing out anything but immaculate, courtesy of efforts on her maid’s part.
It touches briefly on the Profumo affair and other newsworthy events from Harrison’s perspective, as well as the complexity of both Nancy Astor’s character and this master/servant relationship (‘shut up, Rose’ is seemingly Astor’s most frequent refrain). This relationship is the real reason to read the book. As incongruous as it is, the tales of Rose and Nancy Astor’s dynamic is an honest account of a friendship, including its moments of loathing. The fact that Rose is unwilling to capitalise to the lust some may have for intimate details of her extraordinary experiences is testament to her feelings towards Lady Astor.
‘ “My lady,” I said, “from now on I intend to speak as I’m spoken to. Common people say please and thank you, ordinary people do not reprimand servants in front of others and ladies are supposed to be an example to all, and that is that.”
I left the room feeling triumphant. I’d stood up to her, I’d protected myself, she could sack me if she liked but if she did she was in the wrong now me. Half an hour later my bell rang…
“Rose,” she said, as I entered the room, “I apologise for my behaviour this morning.”
‘One night when she was coming to the house she saw a young American soldier lying drunk on the pavement. She helped him to his feet as he staggered up… Eventually she got the protesting soldier into the flat and she had him put to bed. The next morning she gave him a lecture on the evils of drink and a £5 note, and sent him packing. She loved drunks, they gave her a chance to preach what she practised.’