Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is a tribute to 19th-century Scotland. First published in 1937, it was reissued in 2004 as Persephone Books #53, with the usual classic endpaper. It’s a simple story, a comfort read, told by the elderly Mrs Memmary, caretaker of the once magnificent, now crumbling, Keepsfield estate owned by the Countess of Lochlule. The setup involves a group of tourists who stumble upon Keepsfield, now available to let as a holiday home. One of the women falls into conversation with Mrs Memmary, encouraging her to talk about the estate and the family that once lived there. Mrs Memmary is somewhat reticent, but tells her about the day Rose, the current Countess, turned six. The woman asks more questions, which leads Mrs Memmary to relate more chapters in Rose’s life. The reader can imagine Mrs Memmary and the woman spending a couple of hours over a cup of tea, while the rest of the tourists explore the estate.
Lady Rose grew up in a very privileged environment, never wanting for material possessions but also, as was typical of wealthy society at the time, distant from her parents. She sees Scotland as superior to England and, really, anyplace else, as does everyone around her:
“So I shall take your hand, child, and turn you to the sea — like this — and I shall say to you, read, and fill your mind with the wonderful history of Scotland; look, and fill your eyes with the glorious beauty of Scotland; dream, and fill your soul with the poetry and romance of Scotland; and let the love of your country be always in your heart, Lady Rose.” (p. 51)
Rose attended an English boarding school and, at eighteen, made her debut and became engaged to a Scottish nobleman. She fulfilled her duty as an heiress and wife, but here her story departs from the expected norm, and Rose turns out to be a surprisingly strong character. She acts rather impulsively on her convictions, resulting in irrevocable change that, as these things do, has profound positive and negative consequences that make for interesting plot twists. You will have to read to learn more.
Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is aptly described by Persephone Books as “a fairy tale for grown-ups,” with the simple prose I would associate with other fairy tales. Each of Mrs Memmary’s flashbacks are introduced in a way that reminded me of old movies. Can’t you just imagine this bit on screen?
So old Time seized his book and began to turn back the pages, ten, twenty at a time — more than seventy pages of yellow leaves. Through them all the great white house gleamed whiter, and soon the Greek girl at the fountain was laughing as the waters of a bygone day gushed over her reaching fingers. (p.21)
This book didn’t exactly bowl me over, but it was an interesting representative of a literary period and a pleasant diversion.