Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary opens with tourists coming to look around the great house of Keepsfield, for let due to the financial problems of the exiled Lady Rose, Countess of Lochlule. The faded wallpaper and cracked plaster represent an old world that has died away, becoming nothing but a memory in the mind of Mrs Memmary, the house’s caretaker. As the tourists walk through the now empty rooms that were once so full of happiness and promise, she tells them the story of the Countess’ life. Born Lady Rose towards the end of the 19th century, she was the daughter and only heir of the richest Earl in Scotland. A pretty, high spirited and deeply loving child, her open and affectionate nature endeared her to everyone she met. Rose was brought up to adore her country and its history with an almost obsessive passion, but her greatest love was for her home, the magnificent Keepsfield, the finest house in Scotland. She had a charmed childhood spent amidst the beauty of the Scottish countryside, with every comfort provided and every whim catered for. Her only sadness was the persistent absence of her parents; their duties as part of Queen Victoria’s court took them away frequently, and when they were at home, they had little time for their daughter. Eventually they decided to send her away to school in England, and this was the beginning of the end of Lady Rose’s carefree existence.
When Lady Rose turned 18, she was the most eligible debutante of the season. Still the innocent, exuberant girl she was in her early days at Keepsfield, she was delighted by the parties and dreamed of falling in love with a handsome suitor. However, her parents had already decided who Rose would marry; their neighbour Sir Hector Galowrie, second only to Rose’s father in wealth and prestige. Their marriage would combine Scotland’s two finest estates and be an advantageous alliance for both families. Rose, naive and trusting, and delighted at the romance of getting married to a handsome man, was all too happy to follow her parents’ wishes. Little did she realise what she was getting herself into; Sir Hector resented Lady Rose’s independent wealth and status, and didn’t understand her romantic, whimsical personality. Without ever being actively cruel, he found plenty of ways to destroy her sources of joy, slowly crushing her spirit with every passing year. Instead of a place of freedom and enchantment, Rose’s beloved Keepsfield became her prison.
However, this was not the end of Rose’s story. Events conspired to offer her an escape, but very few people understood her resulting decisions. Happiness came at a great cost to Rose; she was born at the wrong time, and in the wrong society, to freely fulfil the desires of her soul. She was a victim of Victorian society, and of the limited roles it gave to women. She was expected to bury her personal needs to maintain the status quo of an aristocracy that was above the passions and indiscretions of the lower classes. For women like Rose’s mother, life was governed by self imposed rules that kept the facade of upper class life intact; if everyone was free to indulge their secret passions, their world would collapse beneath them. Anyone who dared to break free was punished severely; deviance would not be tolerated. For so many, there was no escape, and for those who did, they often found that the world outside of the gilded cage was a very lonely one.
This is a much deeper and darker novel than it at first appears, and is both inspiring and profoundly moving. A damning indictment of a society that crushed its inhabitants and a beautiful, haunting exploration of what it means to live a good life, I loved every minute of it. Don’t let this pass you by; it’s a real gem.