Rosina Harrison, born in Yorkshire at the turn of the last century, served for decades as lady’s maid to Nancy, Lady Astor. From 1929 to 1964, through her lady’s service in Parliament to the air raids on Plymouth in World War II, Rose was the woman behind the scenes, in charge of the furs, the baggage, and the priceless diamond “sparklers.” In 35 years of service, Harrison received one £5 raise, but she traveled the world in style and retired with a lifetime’s worth of stories.
I picked up her memoir for a peek at the good life in one of England’s grandest manors, but was delighted to find Rosina Harrison an engaging storyteller in her own right. As much as I relished the upstairs-downstairs details of running an extensive household, entertaining royalty and the peerage, and keeping track of a fortune’s worth of jewels, I enjoyed the well-drawn character pieces as well. Two silhouettes: the forceful, sharp-tongued, exasperating Lady Astor, swinging unpredictably from generosity to spite; and Rose, the sensible, outspoken Yorkshire woman who gave her tit for tat for decades. Their war of words mellowed over the years, until the constant refrain of “shut up, Rose,” had become something like a term of affection.
Harrison’s writing style is conversational, anecdotal, and drily funny. She speaks about what she knows—domestic matters and personalities rather than politics. For all of her barbed description of the viscountess’s character flaws, Harrison’s portrait is ultimately an admiring one, or at least forgiving. And now when I look at Nancy Astor’s portrait painted by Sargent, or the Cecil Beaton photograph in the priceless Astor tiara, I instead picture her turning cartwheels in an air raid shelter at the age of sixty-one.
Check the WRL catalog for Rose: My Life in Service