I was excited to read Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary by Ruby Ferguson, because it looked like a light, cozy read. Though I did not get a Persephone edition of this book through inter-library loan but a 1963 edition of this 1937 book, Persephone Books has printed this novel, and I usually enjoy their titles. Though I hate to be a wet blanket and give a negative review during Persephone Reading Weekend, I have to be honest; when I finished it on the 17th, I felt the first part was light, but sadly, the last part of this novel was not my cup of tea.
Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary begins with Mr. and Mrs. Dacre, two English tourists, and an American, Mr. Van Elsen, visiting the beautiful Scottish estate of Keepsfield during the Inter-War period. They are shown around by Mrs. Memmary, supposed, by the tourists, to be the old caretaker. The estate has fallen from its glory days in the Victorian period, and now, only Mrs. Memmary is left living in the house. The story switches between the tourists’ experience of the estate and the story of Lady Rose, the Countess of Lochlule and the owner of Keepsfield.
Lady Rose was a happy little girl, rejoicing in the beauty of her home, Keepsfield. Mrs. Memmary describes her thus, ‘”What you’d notice most about Lady Rose was her happiness. She was that kind of child; everything was lovely to her. She always found something new to wonder at and delight in”‘ (57). Lady Rose was a captivating child, and it was enjoyable to read about her sixth birthday, her meeting with a famous author, and her presentation to Queen Victoria when she grew up.
The author describes the kind of childhood of which many little girls dream, depicting the life of a privileged aristocratic child, glad to be alive and living in her Scottish home. Keepsfield was the perfect setting for such a childhood. The narrator describes Helen Dacre’s experience of the estate thus:
This place was exercising over her a strange magic; so far from the world, so remote form the dusty ways of life to which she was accustomed. This was a faery land, a realm of pure, bright colour, of blander sunlight and richer air. Not peaceful exactly, for there was a kind of tingling excitement in the air, a sparkling flavour that you drew in with every breath. It soothed you and yet thrilled you, because all your senses were equally delighted at one and the same time; all your five senses blessed with the loveliness of heaven and earth, colour and scent, soughing sound of tree boughs and murmuring song of bees, taste of the sea-tang on your tongue, cool, gracious pattern of the marble balustrade under your hand, flowing classic lines of the white mansion under the flax-blue sky (55).
As I read the first part of the book, I was enthralled by Keepsfield, and I was enchanted with this child who was so happy and pleased with the beauty which surrounded her.
Being part of the aristocracy, though, had its responsibilities and was not only a life of luxury and beauty. It is impressed upon the reader that among the aristocracy, people did not marry for love but in order to maintain their class. Lady Rose’s parents engineered her marriage, and she married a man who had a title, family, money, and land close to her own. When her father died suddenly without a male heir, Queen Victoria granted her the title of Countess of Lochlule. Therefore, she and her husband lived at Keepsfield, and her husband was not pleased that his wife had her own title as the Countess, owned her own estate, and was seen by the servants to be in charge of them even though, as her husband, he had the last say with them.
When her husband died suddenly, Lady Rose was freed from an unhappy marriage. On the surface, they had kept up the façade of a good marriage. Yet, her husband had been cold and checked her exuberant nature. At this point, Lady Rose could have led a quiet life with her children on her estate. Yet, in Edinburgh, she made a decision that changed her life.
I have wrestled with myself over my feelings regarding the last part of the book; I want to be charitable towards Lady Rose, but when it comes down to it, my generosity is limited. I have also pondered how I could possibly describe my feelings in a review without ruining the book for anyone who might want to read it. Therefore, I’m sorry ahead of time that I reveal spoilers. I have tried to make some events in the later part of the book vague, but not everything could be sufficiently masked. If you do not care about spoilers, read on. On the other hand, if you do not want to know anything about what happens in the later part of this book, please do not read the rest of this review. Though the first part of this novel is a light, charming tale, I will say that the author’s depiction of Lady Rose’s selfish behaviour left me unhappy with the book at the end.
Lady Rose made a decision which went against her responsibilities towards her class and class distinctions, and society turned against her and a loved one. Subsequently, her relatives denied her access to her children, and the Countess of Lochlule decided to leave her home. I think the strict class responsibilities placed upon Lady Rose and the class distinctions made at this time were terrible. First, because of these, Lady Rose entered into a cold marriage. Marriage here was not about a loving relationship between husband and wife, about companionship, about producing and raising children in a caring atmosphere. Instead, it was about maintaining a class. Lady Rose’s decision in Edinburgh went against these class distinctions and responsibilities, and society lashed out against her. Her decision to disregard society was courageous, and I applaud it.
At the same time, Lady Rose did not seem affected enough by what happened to her children as a consequence of her decision. I tried hard to give Lady Rose the benefit of the doubt, though. I could not tell whether she foresaw what would occur to her children; she said at one point that she did foresee what society would do, speaking here in a general way regarding how others would react to her decision and not speaking particularly of what would happen to her children. Someone else said that though she did foresee some of what would happen, she did not foresee the full extent of society’s actions, so hopefully, she did not contemplate ahead of time what would happen to her children. Regardless, she did attempt to thwart society’s wishes regarding her children but did not push the point once she was unsuccessful, seeing the futility of doing so; maybe, it would have been futile. Though she knew her relatives would prevent her children from receiving her letters, she wrote to them and obviously still cared for them.
Lady Rose, however, lived quite happily without her children which astonished me. Lady Rose was a loving and caring mother, and I felt her reaction to how her children were affected by society’s actions was both unrealistic and without sufficient feeling. It seemed unbelievable to me how a mother who loved her children as Lady Rose did could not miss them more after they were taken from her. Helen Dacre conjectures that she may have had regrets but in a general way and not particularly about her children, and the author never definitively states that she did. Also, she left Keepsfield, a home she had loved since childhood, and it amazed me how she could depart without more of a fight; she may not have had a choice if she wanted freedom from society’s disrespect against her and her loved one, but she did not battle against society. She lived happily with the decision she made in Edinburgh and did not seem affected enough by her losses.
Even though Mrs. Memmary says she can understand a part of both society’s position against the Countess of Lochlule and Lady Rose’s decision in Edinburgh, I felt the author attempts to engender contempt against these class distinctions which I did feel. At the same time, the author shows too much sympathy towards the Countess of Lochlule regarding her behaviour subsequent to society’s reaction. As far as I can remember, no criticism was given of Lady Rose’s behaviour after society lashes out against her by anyone, and Mrs. Dacre lauds her decision in Edinburgh and provides no criticism of her conduct after society’s reaction to it, except maybe mentioning that she may have had regrets as stated above. I ended up feeling more indignant at Lady Rose’s lack of feeling concerning her losses and the author’s portrayal of her at this point than angry at society’s actions against her.
Sadly, this book did not hit the spot for me. I enjoyed the enchanting qualities of the first part of the book, and I loved the happy, beauty loving nature of Lady Rose. Yet, I thought her behaviour after society lashed out against her was unrealistic and selfish. I did feel outraged towards the British society of the Victorian period, but the novel also left me feeling angry at Lady Rose’s behaviour.
Ferguson, Ruby. Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary. London: Hodder and Stoughton, Limited, 1963. Print.