Karen's Persephone selection for this month and she has chosen Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson.
How interesting it is that I can have a book on the shelf for several years and not have read it, mainly because a member of an online list had declared it slight and of little merit. Sufficiently scathing in their opinion for me to pass it over when so much else was clamouring for my reading time, so my thanks to Karen for suggesting this one because it really is a little royal diadem of a read.
I have feeling my encounter with Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, written in 1937, was also governed by the knowledge that the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother admired the book so much that she had invited Ruby Ferguson to dine at Buckingham Palace. Read this book and imagine royalty with all their privileges, but likewise all their social constraints, sitting reading in the throne chair opposite you and it somehow offers a much deeper dimension to the book. In fact I quite wished I'd had some royal company to be able to ask 'Was it really like that?' every so often, but had to make do with Rocky snoring by the fire as usual.
Firstly, yes it's that Ruby Ferguson all you Jill and the Pony Club fans.
Oh how I tried to love ponies, it seemed like the right gang to be in with, except I didn't have a pony, but everyone was reading Jill books and I couldn't be left out. I did give up quickly and for those that don't know, the reason that horses and I don't get on is oft mentioned on here; one of the horses at Horseguard's Parade in London sneezed very messily on my new white ankle socks and sandals when I was standing nearby, I was about seven and I've been right off horses from that day to this. Can't be helped but good to see Fidra books are keeping the Jill books in print.
Described, like Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, as a fairytale for grown-ups I was instantly smitten by the Scottish setting of Keepsfield, the sprawling fictional country estate into which Lady Victoria Elspeth Rose Graham-Rooth-Targanet is born.
Silver ladles rather than silver spoons in the mouth, this is a life of prestige and privilege rivaled only by Royalty, yet Rose is a child of many delights. By rights her garrulous, precocious exuberance should have rankled and had me very irked but you can't help but love her, a little heart of pure and innocent gold beating 'neath that
'new frock of soft grey merino with a wide-coloured sash and a rose-coloured ribbon round her dark hair, brushed back from her brow'
as the happiest girl in all Scotland dresses (or is dressed) on the morning of her sixth birthday in 1861.
The story is being told in flashback by an old retainer who has been discovered at the house many years later by a group of tourists who, noticing the To Let signs outside the wrought iron gates, make their way down the mile-long carriage drive and pitch up at the stately pillared front door of the late eighteenth century classic mansion to look around.
Rose's life one of pure happiness, the freedom of the Estate, audiences with her mother at 5pm which is enough to satisfy everyone's requirements, life at school, being presented to Queen Victoria at Court and the debutantes ball, plenty of Highland flings with marriage as the ultimate aim and achieved to the leaden Sir Hector Galowrie. A marriage of convenience and social propriety that will entwine Keepsfield with Sir Hector's neigbouring estate of Redlace, but one that will also trap Rose in a loveless state with her three children, the heir, the spare and the daughter.
I won't dwell a minute longer on the plot but expect trouble, Rose was not blessed with that excessively exuberant, free-spirited nature to allow life to get the better of her, but expect sadness too. These are class-ridden times when to cross social boundaries was deemed too shocking for words.
Little wonder that it all touched a chord with the Queen Mother with its frequent mentions of Balmoral and perhaps a nerve too; the 1936 fall from grace of Edward VIII and the abdication doubtless still an open wound when this book was published.
But I have loved it for its characterisation of Rose, for its themes of women's lives, class and the burdens of wealth and title, not always the blessings they were perceived to be in the 1930s, and of course with hindsight we know just how much was about to crumble into dust and ashes.
Right time for tea, head to Cornflower where I'm sure a regal spread awaits.