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Lady's Maid: An Historical Novel by Margaret…

Lady's Maid: An Historical Novel (original 1990; edition 1991)

by Margaret Forster

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5441018,436 (3.89)35
Title:Lady's Maid: An Historical Novel
Authors:Margaret Forster
Info:Penguin Books Ltd (1991), Paperback, 544 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Fiction. Historical. English.

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Lady's Maid by Margaret Forster (1990)



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Lily Wilson comes to London as a young woman to be lady’s maid to Elizabeth Barrett, a charming invalid. Like everyone in the Browning family she soon adores “Ba” and becomes her companion as well as maid. She helps Elizabeth elope with Robert Browning and moves to Italy with the couple, devoting her life to them.

But this is her story, not Elizabeth’s, and she wonders if she will ever be more than a lady’s maid, ever have a life outside the Browning household. She’s sending money home to family and feels the responsibility keenly. The Brownings come off poorly in this portrait: when she asks for a raise commensurate with her experience and what other maids are making, they treat this as a betrayal of their friendship. She eventually marries another servant and they block her attempts to stay with him during their travels around Europe, and to keep their child in the household.

Yet something keeps her tied to Elizabeth and to Robert, even at her own expense, and the novel tries to work this out. Margaret Forster wrote a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning a few years before writing this novel, and my guess is that this is her attempt to make sense of their relationship.

It’s a great view of the lives of lower class servants, not just Lily but her family members and fellow servants. One had one’s place in the world and there were opportunities to move up or down, depending on hard work but mainly luck. The portrait of Lily is well done, too, though grim in parts. I thought it could have used some editing and went on too long, but it was certainly interesting. ( )
  piemouth | Feb 10, 2017 |

The story begins in London in 1844 when 23-year old Elizabeth Wilson becomes lady's maid to Elizabeth Barrett. A complex and, at times, difficult relationship develops, which only ends with the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1861. The story follows the courtship of the Brownings, the dramatic elopement and their lives abroad, all the while with Wilson, as she is called throughout the book, attending her mistress' every need through good times and bad. Yet the Browings only provide the backdrop of this story, as this account gives voice to their maid Wilson, about the meaning of being in service, the sacrifices, the divide between servant and master and the stark contrasts between their lives and passions. Life's changing desires, for both maid and mistress, were at the heart of book, with many pleasures, losses and disappointments along the way.

Fact and fiction are threaded very closely together here; Margaret Forster has also written a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which I'm keen to read now. There is a lot of detail, and with very small print the book is actually quite a bit longer than 534 pages would suggest, but I enjoyed and savoured every last page of it. The writing reads more like a 19th century classic rather than a work of historical fiction by a contemporary author and it effortlessly transports the reader to that time and place. The character development was outstanding and very believable. It is compulsively readable and I just didn't want to put it down. The characters came to life on the page, human and flawed rather than glorified, but all the more real and accessible for it. This was, above all, a very moving read. ( )
  SabinaE | Jan 23, 2016 |
A thoughtful historical novel that examines one of the basic plot clichés we normally take for granted - the relationship between employer and personal servant - and tries to provide an insight into what it might really mean to be the person paid to mop the fevered brow of a romantic cult figure and mend her clothes. Is it possible to have a close personal relationship with someone with the power to terminate your employment on a whim and cast you out into the street? where are the limits of your obligation to someone who's been working for you devotedly for years and then suddenly starts demanding a life of her own?

An interesting idea, evidently worked-up out of the leftovers of Forster's 1988 biography of Elizabeth Barrett, and written as a response to the challenge issued by Virginia Woolf in the six-page footnote about Wilson she included in Flush: a biography.

Forster seems to be straining a bit to make the later chapters compatible with the few known facts about Elizabeth Wilson's life after the period covered by the book. The narrative voice is also a bit patchy: Wilson's own voice, in her (fictional) letters, is very lively and develops quite convincingly with her increasing maturity and awareness of the world around her, but the third person narrative only feels sharply focussed in the scenes with Barrett. The further Wilson gets away from her mistress, the muddier and more tentative it becomes: probably this reflects the influence of Barrett's voice on Forster's style, as well as the lack of real historical data about Wilson's life away from the Brownings. If she'd been a purely fictional character, it might have been easier to get the dramatic balance right here and focus the reader's attention on the central story. The combination of these effects makes the book feel a little too long (given that Woolf only needed six pages for the same story, six hundred seems rather a lot...). But finding the right balance between historical record and invention is one of the classic problems of historical fiction, especially when you're dealing with a fairly recent period like the mid-19th century, where we know so many facts... ( )
3 vote thorold | Oct 6, 2011 |
In 1844, Lily Wilson becomes lady’s maid to Elizabeth Barrett, invalid daughter of a wealthy, overbearing London merchant. Elizabeth became a recluse, corresponding and eventually meeting the poet Robert Browning. Because her father disapproved of his children marrying, Elizabeth eloped with Robert to Italy.

The story is half about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and half about Lily. I found the details of EBB’s life to be much more interesting than that of Wilson’s, and I wish there was more about her in this novel. I got the feeling that Wilson never really had a life of her own—everything she did was connected in some way with her mistress. However, I’d like to think that this was characteristic of the period—good servants didn’t really have lives of their own. Nonetheless, Wilson seemed to get herself into a lot of romantic entanglements that made me wonder what the point of it was. The writing style of the book is very dense, and it took me a long time to get through—much longer than it normally takes me to read a 550-page book. I also thought that about 200 pages could have been cut from the novel—it just seemed to drag on a bit.

Nevertheless, there were a couple of things I enjoyed about this book, not the least of which was the setting—Victorian England and Italy never fail to interest me. I also liked the author’s message about choice—Wilson could have learned a thing or two from her mistress. ( )
  Kasthu | Feb 25, 2009 |
This book is the story of Wilson who becomes a servant to Elizabeth Barrett from before her elopement and marriage to Robert Browning unti her death. Elizabeth Barrett lived most of her life in poor health and Wilson cared for her. However she did have healthy periods and was able to have one son with Robert Browning whom Wilson had a very close relationship with. Wilson matures and grows as the novel progresses and both became extremely fond of and necessary to the other. But it is always an uneven relationship and this raises many questions. Did the Brownings treat Wilson fairly? For one thing she never recieved a raise as other servants did?. The Brownings always had the power. But at the same time Wilson always realised she had a prestigious job. I found this a very ineresting novel to read. It was very descriptive of the lives of Wilson and the Brownings but maybe a little too long I felt. ( )
1 vote kiwifortyniner | Dec 23, 2008 |
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For Valerie Grove, another hardworking lass from the Northeast.
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Wilson sat up very straight.
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Book description
In this British Victorian novel the romance of Elizabeth to Robert Browning is supported by her dear friend and maid, Elizabeth.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345497430, Paperback)

“Fascinating . . . The reader is treated to a revealing account of the passionate romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning through the eyes of an intimate observer.”

Young and timid but full of sturdy good sense and awakening sophistication, Lily Wilson arrives in London in 1844, becoming a lady’s maid to the fragile, housebound Elizabeth Barrett. Lily is quickly drawn to her mistress’s gaiety and sharp intelligence, the power of her poetry, and her deep emotional need. It is a strange intimacy that will last sixteen years.

It is Lily who smuggles Miss Barrett out of the gloomy Wimpole Street house, witnesses her secret wedding to Robert Browning in an empty church, and flees with them to threadbare lodgings and the heat, light, and colors of Italy. As housekeeper, nursemaid, companion, and confidante, Lily is with Elizabeth in every crisis–birth, bereavement, travel, literary triumph. As her devotion turns almost to obsession, Lily forgets her own fleeting loneliness. But when Lily’s own affairs take a dramatic turn, she comes to expect the loyalty from Elizabeth that she herself has always given.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:04 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

London 1844, and a shy young woman has arrived to take up a new situation in the grandeur of No. 50, Wimpole Street. Subtly and compellingly, 'Lady's Maid' gives voice to Elizabeth Wilson's untold story, her complex relationship with her mistress, Elizabeth Barrett, and her dramatic role in the most famous elopement in history.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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