LADY'S MAID by Margaret Forster


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In 1844, Elizabeth Wilson, a real person mentioned in the letters of her employer, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, arrived at the Barrett household in London to be lady's maid to the "invalid," Miss Elizabeth. Here, British writer Forster adds a fictional footnote to her biography, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1989), in this gently empathic portrait of a loyal servant with a loving heart--much put upon until grievances fuel some bitter egalitarian and feminist sentiments, which surface inexorably (but are ne'er expressed) during her years with the Brownings. After Wilson first sees Miss Elizabeth, she writes to her mother (living in subsistence poverty with three sisters) that "you would pity her, mother. . .she is like a child." But Wilson feels a growing tenderness and love. Then the courtship and elopement with poet Browning bring Miss Elizabeth a rebirth of spirits and health, and Wilson aids her "poor mistress" through the elopement and difficult travels to France and Italy, the dangerous miscarriages, and finally the birth of the Brownings' son Pen. As the years pass, and while the Brownings are absorbed in their Olympian pursuits, lady's maid Wilson--now nursemaid, housekeeper, and cook (with a nary a raise in pay)--discovers that she can also cause "inconvenience." In England, it was not convenient to have "followers," and although marriage to the Brownings' houseman was approved, it was highly inconsiderate to become pregnant when she did. Wilson is dismissed after 13 years with the Brownings, never to recover her first son from England. Alone in Florence, she achieves a kind of independence she prizes--yet when Mrs. Browning dies, Wilson writes to a friend: "there was something between us. . .a sympathy. . .a feeling. . .which at times crossed the barrier" (of maid and mistress). A tireless, plump (544-page), period-attuned portrait of a kind, decorous woman--tight-corsetted in the strictures of class--and a sly poke at the famous literary lovers. For the Downstairs-and-Lady's-Chamber Anglophile--hand-wringing from one-who-served, with a touch of Upstairs class. Could draw the PBS readership.

Pub Date: March 6th, 1990
ISBN: 385-41792-6
Publisher: Doubleday
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