Oh, this is lovely.
It begins with three people, an English couple and an American friend, on holiday in the Scottish Highlands. They see a sign, on grand wrought-iron gates, advertising a magnificent residence to be let. They are intrigued and the gatekeeper invites them to look more closely, assuring them that the housekeeper, Mrs Memmary would be only too pleased to show off the house.
“He unfastened a side-gate and they ran their car along a mile of carriage-drive, through a plantation where rabbits sat in the shaded roadway unafraid, hopping to one side to let them pass, and blackbirds sang a pure, clear song from the thicket; then across a vast park covered with grazing cattle and rows of pheasant coops. From here they could see the house and it took their breath away.
It was a classic white mansion of the late eighteenth century, glittering white , with pillared facades and sweeping terraces, standing in a formal garden to which long marble steps ran down.”
They were honest, they explained to Mrs Memmary that they weren’t potential tenants, that they were simply curious visitors, but she was still delighted to show then the house, a house that she so obviously knew and loved.
Lady Rose was the only child and the heir, thanks to the good graces of Queen Victoria, of the Earl of Lochule.
She was pretty, warm, bright, and her open heart, her boundless curiosity, her love of life, charmed everyone she met. And she grew into a proud Scot and a true romantic, inspired by the writings of Walter Scott, the history of Mary Queen of Scots, and, most of all, her beloved home and lands.
It was lovely, Lady Rose was lovely, and I felt that I had fallen into a fairy-tale,
Lady Rose’s parents were distant figures. That wasn’t unusual, for their class, for their times, for Queen Victoria’s courtiers, but it worried me. Because Lady Rose’s idyllic childhood was no preparation for the life she would be expected to lead when she became first a debutante, then a wife, then a mother.
Her head was full of dreams
“Rose indulged in the most romantic dreams about marriage. Of course they were all delightfully vague and abstract, and for practical purposes they began and ended with white satin and pearls and sheaves of flowers at St, Georges’s and red carpet in front of Aunt Violet’s house in Belgrave Square, and tears, and hundreds of presents. After that came a kind of ideal and undefined state in which you lived blissfully under a new name, and had your own carriage, and didn’t have to ask permission from Mama when you wanted to go out. Floating airily through all of this, of course, was a man. He was not like any other man you had ever seen; they were just men. This man – your husband, queer, mysterious word – was hardly human at all. He was dreadfully handsome, and a little frightening but, of course, you didn’t see very much of him. When you did see him there were love scenes. He always called you “my darling” in a deep, tender voice, and he gave you jewels and flowers, and sometimes went down on his bended knee to kiss you hand. All of this came out of the books you had read. Some day, almost any day after you were presented, and began to go about with Mama, you would meet this marvellous being. You would be in love. You would be married. And that was the end, except that, of course, you would live happily ever after.”
It was a lovely dream, but was Lady Rose ready to adapt, to deal with the strictures of Victorian society, to find that happy ending?
She made a wonderful match, exactly the match her parents had wanted. But she didn’t find that happy ending. Her conventional husband didn’t like her having her own independent wealth and title, he was aggrieved that she was so devoted to her own home and uninterested in his, and he didn’t understand her nature, her love of romance, fun, and life’s simple pleasures. It was sad, but it was understandable.
In time though Lady Rose saw a chance of ‘happily ever after’. She seized it, but there was a scandal, she lost everything and was driven into exile.
The fairy-tale had become an indictment of a society that cast women into restricted roles, that gave men control of their money, their homes, their children, and dealt harshly with anyone who stepped outside its conventions. That indictment was subtle, but it was powerful it lies in a story so full of charm.
Mrs Dacre was captivated by Mrs Memmary’s stories – the framing story worked beautifully – and so was I.
But that’s not to say I was happy with all of Lady Rose’s action. I understood her desire to love and be loved, of course I could, but I couldn’t believe that she was so heedless of the consequences of her actions for her beloved home, or for the two sons she adored.
But the story, and most of all, the heroine never lost their hold on my heart. I was involved, and I cared, so very much.
The visitors left, and Mrs Memmary was left in her beloved house.
There was a gentle twist in the tale, that wasn’t entirely surprising but was entirely right, and the final words brought tears to my eyes.
This is a beautiful, moving, romantic story, told by a consummate storyteller, and I am so pleased that I met Lady Rose, a heroine as lovely as any I have met in the pages of a Persephone book.