The Lady’s Maid: My Life in Service

by Rosina Harrison

I’m not at all sure what prompted me to read this.  It was a cheap buy on Kindle, and I suppose it was one of those impulse browse moments.  I’m glad I took the plunge.  This is an easy read and very enjoyable.

Rose (as her employers called her – her own family dubbed her Ena) was, by any standards, plucky, ambitious, confident and with bags of common sense.  With a life in service as the only career option open to her, she decided at an early age, encouraged by her mother, to aim high and work towards becoming a lady’s maid.  The reason for this choice was that she wanted to travel.

Her family made the sacrifices required to allow her to stay on at school for an extra two years till the age of fourteen, and then to start a dressmaking apprenticeship.  She knew that she would need excellent dressmaking skills, as well as a knowledge of French.  Her first job was as a “young lady’s maid” to a 17-year-old girl, but pretty soon she moved on to working for a lady, and from there she moved into the Astor household, where she remained for 35 years, most of it as Lady Astor’s maid.

Inevitably, the story is as much about Lady Astor as it is about Rose.  The servant has an intimate view of the family she serves, and Rose was bright enough (as well as discreet enough) to tell their story well.  True, she manages to gloss over some of the more dubious aspects, such as the activities of the ‘Cliveden set’ in the 1960s; but her time with Lady Astor, who died in 1964, was drawing to an end by then, and the lady and her household no longer lived at Cliveden.  Rose does however show her lady’s character warts and all.  It is clear from this account that Lady Astor was not an easy person to get on with; she could be temperamental and was often rude.  Rose puts up with her behaviour after a succession of lady’s maids have failed to do so.

The book abounds with delightful anecdotes that not only shed light on the relationship between a wealthy family and their servants, but also read as good stories in themselves.  Witness the account of a journey to Istanbul with Lady Astor and Dame Edith Lyttelton, where the Dame – an absent-minded academic – keeps losing things.  Rose eventually and assertively takes charge.

An engaging narrator and a fascinating story, beautifully told.