Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor by Rosina Harrison

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor 

Rosina Harrison (Autobiography)

Rosina (Rose) Harrison was born in 1899 in a little village near Ripon in Yorkshire.  The daughter of a stonesman and a laundrymaid and the eldest of four children, Rose had but one desire in life: to travel.  In her 35 years of service to Lady Astor—Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, Viscountess Astor—Rose would not only travel the world, but she would become an integral part of the prestigious Astor family (“the landlords of New York”).  This is Rose’s life—told in her own words—that spans several wars, a coronation, 1,000-person receptions, misplaced jewelry, a missing sable tie, and a loving friendship that would endure all of these and more.

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor is a lady maid’s personal account of a life filled with dignitaries, disagreements, devotion, and discovery.  Fans of the British television series Upstairs, Downstairs or Amazon Prime’s Downton Abbey will appreciate this behind-the-scenes perspective into the lives of both the aristocracy and their attendants.  Through Rose, we gain an appreciation of what it is to work for someone whose heart is charitable, but whose tongue is often sharp and cruel; we experience dinners with Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and George Bernard Shaw; we see how entertaining is not just an event, but an industry; we understand that the key to a beautiful floral arrangement is to consult with Nature herself; and we learn the correct way to “pop” a champagne cork (gently unscrew the cork, cover it with a napkin, and then by tilting the bottle to one side, the cork will come out easily and quietly).  

Rose is an entertaining look into the innerworkings of the wealthy and those who keep the gears of this expensive and vast machine greased and operating flawlessly.  While no employer/employee relationship is without its ups and downs, the respect, dependency, and devotion between Rose and Lady Astor spanned over three decades and showed us the meaning of perseverance and the value of loyalty. 

Rose Harrison died at the age of 90 in 1989.  Although she never married nor had any children, hers was a life fulfilled and a dream attained.  When Rose was asked by Bobbie Shaw (Lady Astor’s son by her first marriage) what she would like most in this world, Rose replied, after a moment’s hesitation, “To live my life over again”.  In her autobiography, published in 1975, she wrote that her answer would be the same. 

Lady Astor enjoyed a close twenty-year friendship with playwright George Bernard Shaw and so it seems fitting that I end this review with a quote of his that I think adequately sums up the life of Rosina Harrison: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”  Rose created a full and satisfying life through her employment and friendship with Lady Astor.  She gave as good as she got and quickly became a respected and trusted confidante to a woman who was the second elected female Member of Parliament, but the first to take her seat.  Not bad for a spunky Yorkshire girl who thought that life couldn’t get any better than luxuriating in the family’s hip bath.

Rating: 4/5

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Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (YA Historical Fiction)

Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Alchemy and Meggy Swann   

Karen Cushman (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” – Carl Jung

After the death of her gran, Margaret “Meggy” Swann is carted from Millford Village to London and unceremoniously deposited at the doorstep of her father, Master Ambrose, the local alchemist.  Meggy is none too pleased with her new home: heads mounted on sticks and placed on a bridge, the smell of fish and sewage everywhere, and streets slick and slippery from horse droppings.  Ye toads and vipers!  What kind of place IS this London?  Between a mother who was pleased to see the back of her and a father who assumes she is a beggar upon their first introduction, Meggy has found herself in a rather unenviable position.  She is crippled, penniless, and friendless…unless you count her goose, Louise.  But Meggy is stronger than she thinks and with the help of a cooper, a printer, and a rather smitten player, she’ll not only save a life, but she’ll manage to save a soul as well.

From her first utterance of, “Ye toads and vipers”, I fell in love with Meggy Swann.  She is scrappy, sassy, resourceful, impish, loyal, and brave.  She is disabled (suffering from what we would today recognize as bilateral hip dysplasia), but doesn’t seek sympathy, pity, or charity.  In a time when deformity and illness were viewed as a direct judgment from God, it would have been easy for Meggy to become bitter from the taunts and jeers unmercifully thrown at her by villagers both young and old alike.  While in Millford Village, she was able to stay somewhat isolated and protected within her mother’s alehouse; however, in London her lameness is on full display and it is at this moment when we see Meggy’s pluck and spirit begin to emerge.  No longer will she be the meek victim of unfair slurs and prejudices.  While her father is busy transforming metals in his laboratorium, Meggy is experiencing her own transformation into a strong, proud, and confident young woman who refuses to let her circumstances define or limit her.

This story is set in 1573 London and Cushman successfully transports readers to the Elizabethan Era through her usage of period-appropriate language.  This requires having to adjust to the frequent occurrences of words such as naught (nothing), certes (certainly), mayhap (perhaps), belike (very likely), and sooth (truth), but given the age this book targets (12 years and above), the acclimation should be quick and painless.

There are so many lessons that one could glean from this book, but perhaps the most poignant was one that Meggy learned from a flightless goose: “Even Louise had given the girl something, the knowledge that one did not have to be perfect to be beauteous.”  And that is something worth remembering, be ye toad or viper.

Rating: 5/5

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A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo (J Historical Fiction)

A Medal for Leroy

A Medal for Leroy   

Michael Morpurgo (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Michael has no father, brothers, or sisters.  Just his mother, Maman, and two aunts:  Auntie Pish and Auntie Snowdrop.  It is 1940s London and right after the war.  Michael’s friends call him “Poodle” because of his frizzy hair and French ancestry.  But Michael doesn’t mind much.  In fact, he likes being different, being special.  Regarding his father, Michael knows only what his mother has told him:  his father’s name was Roy, he was a Spitfire pilot, and he was killed in the war.  But when Michael’s aunt passes away, she leaves behind a clue that will not only shed light on his past, but also finally reveal who he is.

A Medal for Leroy was inspired by the true story of Walter Tull, the first black person to serve as an officer in the British Army.  Like his fictional counterpart in this story (Michael’s grandfather, Leroy), Tull grew up in an orphanage, played soccer, served heroically in battle, and has no known grave.  Both Tull and Leroy deserved a medal for bravery, but were denied because of the color of their skin.  Morpurgo is a master storyteller (author of the spectacular novel War Horse) and provides his characters with a surprising amount of depth given that his book is only 130 pages.  He delicately tackles the ugliness of racial intolerance and inequality while showing young readers the value of having dignity in the face of disgrace and showing love without reservations or conditions.

In a world that still seems divided by so many factors, it is worth looking at the words that Michael’s aunt, who served as a nurse during the First World War, wrote to Michael: “It was while I was with those poor wounded soldiers that I first understood, Michael, that when all’s said and done, it’s what we all want and need most: to love and to be loved.”  Words lovingly passed along to a beloved nephew that would serve us all to remember today and always.

Rating: 4/5

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