Wed
Mar 7 2012 9:30am

Rosina Harrison’s Life in Service in the Time of Downton Abbey

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor by Rosina HarrisonThis is a slightly unusual post in that I’ll be talking about a nonfiction book, but it’s one that I really think fans of historical romance and period television shows like Downton Abbey will find fascinating. Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor is the story of what it was like to be a servant among the very, very rich from the late 1920s through the early 1960s.

In 1928, Rosina Harrison arrived at the illustrious household of the Astor family to take up her new position as personal maid to the infamously temperamental Lady Nancy Astor, who sat in Parliament, entertained royalty, and traveled the world. “She’s not a lady as you would understand a lady” was the butler’s ominous warning. But what no one expected was that the iron-willed Lady Astor was about to meet her match in the no-nonsense, whip-smart girl from the country.

I’d read a lot about the duties of servants in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and, in spirit if not always in method, Rose’s duties were similar to those from earlier decades. The book also covers the duties of male servants, through anecdotes mostly provided by the family’s butler, to whom Rose was a close friend, and a gardener who also served as a floral designer (yes, the Astors had their own floral designer!). 

Even more fascinating than reading about quotidian duties was hearing about how a mistress and servant interacted with each other, from the servant’s point of view.  So often, in historical romance novels, the heroine’s lady’s maid is her confidant.  I think Rosina Harrison’s memoir gives a good idea of how that might and might not work in real life.

Rose’s first position was as maid to a pair of young sisters.  What she says about them is in line with my expectations:

My relationship with Miss Patricia isn’t easy for me to describe. 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 closer; 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. It was different with Miss Ann: she was younger and as she grew up was more open with me, that is until she went to finishing school in Switzerland. When she came back her attitude was the same as her sister’s. We met again almost as strangers. Our relationship grew, but it was set in a different key; very much a minor one.

It’s when Rose is hired as lady’s maid for Nancy Astor’s daughter, and then Nancy Astor herself, that things get interesting.  Lady Astor was notoriously difficult to please:  “no matter what you did for her, she never let you see she was pleased. It was as though she thought it your bounden duty to serve her.”

Rose has a remarkably clearheaded view of her difficult employer; while clearly explaining how Lady Astor’s temper caused her to be difficult to work with, Rose also freely describes the many things she admired about Lady Astor, such as her work with charitable causes, her kindness to Rose’s mother, and her sense of fun.

The two developed a bantering, argumentative relationship between them.  Rose was by no means cowed by her employer, at least once she realized her own strength.

I’d allowed her ladyship to walk over me and make mincemeat out of me. I now knew that my work had been right; where I’d been wrong was in not defending it and myself when we were both under attack. I saw her in a different light, not as a mean spiteful person any more, but as someone who in her own way was putting me to the test. She wanted a maid in her own image and she thought she could get one by destroying me and then building me up again as she wanted me to be. She hadn’t succeeded and from now on she wasn’t even going to get the chance.

They went on fighting for the next thirty years or so, but there was respect beneath it.

She loved wearing [elaborate jewelry] and she often used too much for my taste. She’d turn round to me and say, ‘How do I look, Rose?’ and I’d reply, ‘Haven’t you forgotten the kitchen stove, my lady?’ earning myself the customary, ‘Shut up, Rose!’

…What had begun as a battle gradually mellowed into a kind of game between us. It went on for thirty-five years; neither of us won, neither of us lost.

Not only is the book a useful guide to one relationship between lady and servant, it’s an involving story of two women from vastly different backgrounds, and how they learned to work together, if not in harmony, then in partnership. Unlike in fiction, the two women never became intimate friends.  But in many ways, they lived more closely together.

One final quote, that illustrates some of the complexities of their relationship:

She started talking to Mr. Robertson about me and my time with her, how we had worked together for thirteen years. I loved her for using the word ‘together’ and not ‘for’; it made it seem like a partnership, not a job. Then she went on to say that I was the only woman who would put up with her and she was the only woman who would put up with me. I thought it was time I said something. ‘Mr Robertson, her ladyship is the kind of woman who takes a lot of understanding. It took me nearly three years.’

Bombs or no bombs, her ladyship still had the last word. ‘There, Rose,’ she laughed, ‘you have the advantage of me because I’ve never got to understand you.’

What do you find most fascinating about the mistress/servant relationship?


 

Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen; she has a World War One-set Spice Brief out in May titled “Under Her Uniform.” Follow her on Twitter:  @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.

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7 comments
Heather Waters (redline_)
1. redline_
That is fascinating, Victoria, thanks! I guess no matter how much you love your job, it is still a job, and you can't (or shouldn't) really ever forget that. It sounds like Rose and Lady A found what worked best for them and that there was a lot of mutual respect, though, which is more than many employer-employee relationships had/have going for them, then and now.
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
I was thinking about just how little privacy the very entitled had in their lives--they always had someone around, fussing over them, or just standing waiting to serve. That would drive me crazy! This sounds like a fun book, Victoria.
Victoria Janssen
3. VictoriaJanssen
It was worth reading both as entertainment and as research. It makes clear what boundaries the women did keep between themselves - for instance, Harrison says she never saw her ladies nude, until it was necessary in Lady Astor's old age.
Lege Artis
6. Lege Artis
Oh, this is great post, Victoria! On some level, story reminds me on Steven King's book called Dolores Claiborne- Whole book is told by Dolores as her statment she's giving in police station. Here she describes her relationship with rich and hard to please Vera Donovan for whom she worked over 40 years as housekeeper. Dynamic between two women was written masterly.Of course, that is fiction... but how King describes this love/hate relationship between two women, their bartering and arguing which later you come to realise actually shows their interdependency 'cause they were each other's constant, got me to understand Rosina's words better. I will certanly read Rose: Life in Service.
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