Book review: Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster
Four stars or five stars? I couldn’t decide. I ended up giving Lady’s Maid five stars because it’s stayed with me. Days after finishing, I keep thinking about Lilly Wilson—the protagonist. Plus, it’s given me a new perspective on life back in Victorian times—the 1840s or so until the turn of the century. For both these reasons, it merits five stars.
This was a book I looked forward to reading each night and had a hard time putting down. I found myself wrapped in the world of the mid-19th century—the same feeling I get when I read Jane Austen novels, although this book was published in 1991.
I know historical fiction has to take liberties with the facts and that’s okay with me to a point. An author can learn only so much from letters and other archival materials, so she gets to fill in the blanks. But I like being led back in time by someone who cares about facts, like a biographer. Lady’s Maid was written by Margaret Forster who also wrote a biography of the British poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning—the other leading actress in the book’s cast.
Lilly Wilson arrives in the Barrett household in the 1840s to be the lady’s maid for the oldest daughter, Elizabeth. Lilly is known to all simply as Wilson as is the way when you’re in service. She’s a serious, capable, caring lady’s maid who ends up also being a nurse maid, dog walker and more for her mistress.
Miss Barrett is sickly and weak. For weeks on end she is confined to the sofa in her darkened bedroom, yet her reputation as a poet grows. Wilson is devoted to her mistress, and Barrett in turn is dependent upon Wilson’s care. She seems to enjoy Wilson’s quiet company, and Wilson slowly comes out of her shell.
When Barrett decides to elope with fellow poet Robert Browning, she takes Wilson into her confidence and then takes her along with them to Italy. Now we watch as Wilson transforms from a shy, fearful, change-wary lady’s maid to a confident woman who comes to love her life in Florence and her mistress Browning.
However, she’s more than a lady’s maid now. She still nurses her mistress when she becomes ill, which is often, but she’s also nanny to the Browning’s son, Pen—but at the same pay as when she started working for the poet.
Issues of class and money run through this book because the relationship between Wilson and her mistress, despite any loving feelings between the two, is defined by class, and, therefore, money. Wilson’s employment and security depend upon the Brownings, but she often deludes herself into believing they have a special relationship, unlike the relationships her fellow lady’s maids have with their employers.
Wilson mistakes the attention, appreciation, and tenderness of her mistress for something it’s not, something that’s not possible between their classes. Browning may love her maid but only in a way a maid can be loved. Wilson will always be a servant, always dependent upon others for her home and livelihood, her security in life. The Brownings have a warm family life, but Wilson is not expected to want the same for herself. The Brownings travel about Europe visiting friends and family, but not Wilson.
As a servant, Wilson’s not free to choose to live the way she wishes, and she’s not free to be a wife and mother, not if she wants to stay in service with the Brownings. She can plot and dream, but she’s not in a position to make those decisions, her freewill is limited by her station in life.
Because the book is from Wilson’s point of view, we only glimpse the Brownings’ world through her eyes, and we don’t see much. I’d love for someone to write a novel that takes on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s point of view so we can see what she thinks about the relationship with her lady’s maid. Even better, include excerpts of her poetry and her husband’s.
Many reviewers have come away from this book disgusted and disappointed with how the Brownings treated Wilson. But how else could they behave? Despite being poets, they are creatures of their time and class. They were raised to be entitled.
Some say the book is too long. Its length never bothered me. If you want to immerse yourself in the Victorian era and the life of a lady’s maid, and feel how class differences made all the difference, get yourself a copy.
A related book on sale now (as of January 26, 2018), but maybe not for long:
Flush by Virginia Woolf ($2.99)
An imaginative biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel: “Here Flush tells his story as well as the love story of Robert Browning and his wife, complete with horrid maids [Ed. note: What?!?], bullying fellow dogs, mysterious illnesses, and clandestine romance. Along the way, plenty of other topics are explored, including the barriers between man and animal, the miseries of London, and the oppression of women by ‘father and tyrants.’”
Top photo: drawing room at Casa Guidi—the Brownings’ home in Florence—via Wikimedia Commons. Bottom photo: excerpt of Lady’s Maid book cover art.
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