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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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521819,425 (3.89)34
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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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... ( )
2 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 |
Told from the intriguing perspective of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's maid, Wilson, this book asks us to look at the relationship between the English upper-class and their personal servants in the nineteenth century. Where close bonds can develop, as they do here, what are the obligations of a maid to her mistress, and what are the obligations of a mistress to her maid?

Here, the Brownings (especially Elizabeth) do not necessarily come off well, at some points seeming to deliberately throw up obstacles to the happiness of Mrs. Browning's maid, even though to help her would come at little or no cost to themselves, and would seem to be no more than she deserves after years of loyal and devoted service. But Wilson also makes poor choices; is she relying on the Brownings for their help inappropriately? That she continually chooses her employers over herself and her family is frustrating, as is the Browning's continuing inability to recognize the sacrifices she makes.

The resolution of the book is not entirely satisfactory. After a lengthy, drawn-out process, Wilson more or less accepts that she is on her own and that the Brownings owe her nothing. But it feels more as though she was forced to this realization, rather than coming to it naturally, and showing some growth as a character. ( )
3 vote mzonderm | Apr 18, 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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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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