Review of Lady’s Maid
I’m not much of a poetry person (ask Stuart), and because I don’t spend my time scouring poetry books, I’d never heard of Elizabeth Barrett Browning before I was introduced to a play about her (The Barretts of Wimpole Street) when I was in eleventh grade. Though I have read some of her poetry since, I am much more interested in Barrett Browning’s life than I am in her work. I bought the book Lady’s Maid so many years ago that I can’t remember purchasing it, and it sat on my bookshelf until I picked it up recently.
Margaret Forester’s book focuses not on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but on the poet’s lady’s maid, Lily Wilson. Beginning when Wilson leaves her English country home for Barrett Browning’s father’s house in London, the book follows Wilson during her nearly twenty years of service to the poet, from before Barrett Browning meets her husband, Robert Browning, to the couple’s secret marriage, their travels all over Europe, the miscarriages and birth of their son, to name only a few years. While Wilson starts out as a timid servant, she soon becomes Barrett Browning’s biggest confidante and gains more confidence than she’s sure she is allowed as a maid. Eventually, that confidence turns into a sureness that she can support herself, especially after she falls in love with a fellow servant. Unfortunately, her mistress can’t find it in herself to support her maid as her maid supported her, instead seeing Wilson’s yearning for independence as a lack of love.
Forester’s novel is very, very, very long, nearly five hundred and fifty pages, but Forester’s style keeps the story from seeming overlong or the story from growing boring. Despite that the same thing happens again and again, I was never wishing for more action than was already present. It was interesting to see Wilsons’ growth from a sky, skittish twenty three year-old to a confident thirty year old, and beyond. At twenty three, despite the era in which she lives, Wilson is in no rush to get married. But the older she gets, and the more her sisters and friends take on stages that she has yet to conquer, she becomes less content with her single state. The book follows her through crushes, a broken engagement, falling in love for real, and the challenges of married life. More heartbreaking is that, after her first child is born, Wilson’s working-woman status does not allow her to keep her son with her, forcing her to leave the child with her sister for nearly three years, through the birth of Wilson’s second son. Forester’s writing made me feel Wilson’s sadness at the thought of her first son growing up without her.
Throughout her employment with the Brownings, Wilson becomes less a maid and more of a friend. While Wilson always remembers her place, the Brownings are always generous, much more generous than most employers were back then, insisting that Wilson rest when she is sick and that she has time for herself every day. And, just like any friends, the trio has arguments. The Brownings are shocked when Wilson requests more money toward the end of her employment with them, having been paid the same rate for more than ten years, and hurt when she says she will leave if they don’t give her a few more guineas.
The one thing I didn’t like about the book was Forester’s insistence on inserting Wilson’s letters to her mother, sisters, or friends in the middle of paragraphs; it gives the impression that she wanted to write the book in first person, but couldn’t quite do it, and so this is her way of making that happen in a more minor way. She does it constantly, and the shift is jarring.
Reading Forester’s book does not require an intense love of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to relate to the tale of her maid. Wilson is a relatable, likable character, even when she does unlikable things. If you like historical fiction, Forester’s Lady’s Maid is definitely one to check out.