May 5, 2010

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary opens in the 1930’s, when an American couple on holidays in Scotland asks to see Keepsfield, an old house and estate that is now to be let to affluent tourists. As the old housekeeper, Mrs Memmary, shows them around, she tells Helen the story of the house – as well as the story of the life of its owner, Countess Rose Lochlule, all the way from her Victorian dream childhood to her exile in continental Europe.

When she was young, Lady Rose felt that “life was rather like a fairy-tale altogether”, and with good reason. Hers was a childhood of ponies and carts, large estates and débutante balls, finishing schools where one made friends and seasons spent in London, going from ball to garden party to wedding to ball. But Lady Rose was far too human for the harshness that her social position demanded of her. Her story, which becomes increasingly dark as it progresses, is an illustration of what those who dared break Victorian convention had to face.

Lady Rose reminded me a little of Lucy Honeychurch from A Room With a View: they share the same kind of warmth, the same inability to treat others like they’re beneath them, the same difficulty in remaining distant from those their social position demands they treat distantly. But while Lucy’s story is defiantly optimistic, Lady Rose’s is all about the mercilessness of the Victorian social world. It’s of course no coincidence that this takes place some decades earlier: in the early twentieth-century, a girl like Rose might have had a better chance of being allowed to be happy. But in the Victorian world, her fate was almost inevitable.

Another book Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary put me in mind of was Rachel Ferguson’s Alas, Poor Lady. They’re very different in many ways, but they have in common the fact that they follow upper-class women from the Victorian Ages to the 1930’s, and show the personal impact of all the changes the world saw in that period. As a believer in democracy and social justice, I can’t really lament the decay and loss of status of the aristocracy, but I can and do acknowledge that this had human costs. It involved real losses for real people, and I do have sympathy for that.

The undeniable beauty and glamour of Rose’s childhood and teenage years make the book’s final chapters all the more moving. She lost most of what she loved – not only because the world changed, but because much was taken away from her. However, her allegiance to a past that treated her so harshly is all the same easy to understand. As Mrs Memmary tells Helen as she’s telling her about Lady Rose’s life, it’s easy for someone not born into that world to deride it, just like it’s easy to underestimate the inescapable weight of convention. “But why couldn’t they…?” is a simple question to ask, but the answer is that no, a Victorian absolutely couldn’t.

I apologise for being vague, but as you might have noticed by now there are things about this story that I don’t want to give away. A lot of what happens at the end is easy to see coming, but I still don’t want to risk robbing this story of its extraordinary emotional impact. One final comment: another noteworthy thing about Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is the fact that it is, as Candia McWilliam puts it in the preface, “a love letter to Scotland”. The descriptions of Edinburgh, of the Scottish scenery around Keepsfield, of Lady Rose’s passion for her country’s history and traditions, are absolutely wonderful. Scotland remains my absolute favourite of the places in the world I have visited to date, and the fact that this book momentarily took me back was one more reason to love it.

Favourite passages:
It was a fine match, and Rose knew it; though she felt slightly oppressed at times. Magnificence was a definite check on high spirits; and her engagement seemed to have been the signal for letting loose a flood of magnificence upon her. Magnificence was suffocating; it consisted to Rose’s way of thinking of new and stately relatives; gold plates, dignity, suppression of one’s natural enthusiasms, and family heirlooms.

“…May I look out of the window? What a glorious view! I should sit here a great deal, if I were you. But, no, I shouldn’t; it would be too tantalizing. I should be off to find out exactly what is was like on the top of those blue hills and what lay beyond.”
“You wouldn’t,” said Rose, grimly. “Not if you were me. It would be exceedingly unsuitable conduct.”
“Oh.” Susan came back to her chair. “Then there are drawbacks in being well married, too. Oh, Rose, isn’t any woman free? Are we all prisoners?”

The loving, glowing Rose had beaten her soft hands against cold granite; then she gave up beating and drew away, and hid her warmth until she was alone with her children. Ten years… such a long, long time when you were used to being loved, and wanted to be loved, and were made to feel that your cordiality was undignified and your joy in living mere bad behaviour.
Other Opinions:
Paperback Reader
Kiss a Cloud



  1. Thanks for the review, I do like things victorian and Scotland is also one of my favorite places.

  2. This sounds like another book I have to read. The plot might sound a bit vague in this post, but the review in itself was very well written :)

  3. Ah, my favourite love-letter to Scotland. I do adore this book and pleased that you were a fan too; it is the perfect book to curl up with on a rainy afternoon and immerse oneself in from cover to cover.

  4. So tantalizingly vague! I almost NEED to read it now to find out what you are talking about. I think I will stick with A Room With a View first though :)

  5. Everyone seems to adore this book and I am so looking forward to reading it one day!

  6. Oh oh oh I've read Lady Rose this week and just loved it. I loved your review too and that the quotes you chose are different ot mine. loving when we've all read the books and can talk openly about the ending...

  7. I want to read this now just to read about Scotland - I've always wanted to go there.

  8. Another one for my wishlist:) Great review Nymeth. I will keep my eye on this book!

  9. This book sounds wonderful, and so does a trip to Scotland!

  10. What a perfectly wonderful book. Another excellent Persephone to add to the list to read.

  11. This sounds so intriguing. I love what you say in the last paragraph about it being "easy to underestimate the inescapable weight of convention." Too often we diminish the difficulties people faced in past times, assuming they were too weak to break free. This sort of historical arrogance always frustrates me when we read books about past times in class.

  12. I did find this rather vague, but it's good to know that's for a reason. I love the idea of a love letter to Scotland. I haven't been there but it sounds lovely. And this book sounds lovely too!

  13. I need a good love letter to Scotland to motivate me to go there. I always meant to go when I was living in the UK, but when I had a spare bit of money, I could hear London calling. And it was cheaper and I could go there at least three times (and see a play!) for every one putative trip to Scotland. Now I do wish I'd made time to go, particularly to Edinburgh.

    This book sounds great even without the Scotland lovin', though. You know how I love gender issues. :P

  14. It's always so interesting to me to read about several different author's ideas about Victorian women. It sounds as though this story is one that doesn't sugar coat things about what some of these women faced. I am going to have to try to grab a copy of this one as well. All these reviews of yours lately make me realize I am very interested in this tome period!!

  15. I'm so jealous of you! This is probably the Persephone I'd most like to read, but of course my library doesn't carry it! Every time I read a review of it, my knees get weak! So glad to hear you loved it so much; having visited Scotland, I'd love to revisit it through this book.

  16. What a lovely review- this might have to be the next Persephone I read.

  17. There is a book on my shelf I haven't read yet called The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy that I think you and I might like to read together over a few months :-)

    One of the tenets of the book, I believe, is that it is a BAD thing the aristocracy and the landowning class is gone in many ways. Mostly because at least the aristocracy had a tie to the land, and a reason to want to better it and do what was best for their tenants. Now, with large corporations, there is no thought to doing what is best for your constituents or workers, but on what is best for the bottom line and faceless investors. It's an interesting take and in some ways, I can see the point (particularly now).

  18. I'm surprised I've never heard of this before. It sounds great, though. A book with an emotional impact is one that I want to read!

  19. Your review with not too many hints has piqued my interest!

  20. Thanks for the great review! I loved those passages and I really enjoy the Victorian Era so I think I'll add this one on the list :)

  21. This sounds like another amazing book. Scotland is also one of my favourite places in the UK, I had several friends who lived and studied there. I also must read A Room with a View instead of just watching the film.

  22. Verity: I really did :)

    Jessica: Then I think there's no way this one could go wrong for you!

    Iris: Thank you so much! I always feel bad when I can't say much about the story, as I imagine that all these vague allusions are frustrating to people who haven't read the book. But I really can't say more!

    Claire: Thank you again for yet another excellent recommendation :)

    Amy: Once you finish A Room With a View, this would be a perfect follow-up :)

    Claire: I hope that when you do you love it as much as the rest of us have.

    Joan Hunter Dunn: I'll be over to read your thoughts in a moment :)

    Kathy: It's a lovely, lovely place!

    Andreea: This is right up your alley!

    JoAnn: Doesn't it? I want to go back.

    Vivienne: We should add their whole catalogue and be done with it ;)

  23. Trisha: Yes, exactly! That really frustrates me too. It's not that people back then were wimps; it's that it really *was* incredibly hard to swim against the tide and have everyone you'd ever known and loved turn on you.

    Rebecca: I'm really sorry for the frustrating post!

    Jenny: I did the opposite - I didn't visit other places that I really wanted to go to and which were nearer me (like York! Why didn't I go to York? Oh wait - time and money :P) so I could save for Scotland. I was lucky enough to find very cheap flights, and so I managed to go to both Edinburgh and the Highlands. Edinburgh was my favourite, but both were wonderful trips!

    Zibilee: Yes, it absolutely doesn't sugar coat anything. And yet the charm and romance are still there. I thought it was a very balance portrayal of one of my favourite time periods. Also, I love to be spreading the Victorian love :D

    Steph: I actually managed to grab this one on Bookmooch! I couldn't believe my eyes.

    Julia: Thank you! I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did.

    Aarti: I'd love to read that book! That's such an interesting thought. My problem with the aristocracy is the sense of entitlement to privilege that most of its members seemed to have. As one of the characters in Howards End puts it, which should a class of people draw incomes they did nothing to earn and sneer at those who do the actual work? But of course, that still happens today, doesn't it? Except instead of inheriting lands and titles, people inherent businesses. I can see how the depersonalization would make what is basically a very similar system by a different name even worse :\

    Emidy: It's one of those classics that's been rediscovered by Persephone - so while it's not exactly obscure anymore, it's still not as widely known as it deserves to be.

    Kathleen, I'm glad to hear it!

    Lua, I hope you enjoy it :)

    Chasingbawa: A Room With a View is a wonderful book! And so is this one.

  24. oh no, the post wasn't frustrating! It sounds like a delightful book!

  25. Ah, this is the one that I am dying to get my mits on! It sounds so lovely :o)

    Boof x

  26. Ooh I'm so so happy you loved it. You are right, the emotional impact is what really makes this book. It made me bawl! It's the most nostalgic book I've read in a long time..


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