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.
Praise for Lady's Maid
“[A] wonderful novel . . . fully imagined and persuasive fiction.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Absorbing . . . heartbreaking . . . grips the reader's imagination on every page . . . [Margaret] Forster paints a vivid picture of class, station, hypocrisy and survival in Victorian society.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Extremely readable . . . The author's sense of the nineteenth century seems innate.”—The New Yorker
“Highly recommended . . . an engrossing novel of the colorful Browning ménage.”—Library Journal
“Delightful . . . entertaining.”—Vogue
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Read an Excerpt
Wilson sat up very straight. This was the first letter she had ever written in her life and she wished it to be correct in every particular. The inkwell, Mother’s parting gift and purchased with some difficulty, had traveled with her. It was made of glass, with a hinged lid. The ink itself had traveled separately, tightly stoppered in a small bottle and wrapped for extra security in a piece of green felt. The felt was now spread out with the inkwell resting upon it so that, should there be any spillages, no harm would be done. Taking care to allow the surplus ink to drip off her nib, at last she wrote:
Dear Mother, we left from the Unicorn Inn at five in the morning in a Coach. I was well wrapped up and though the air was Raw not in the least chilled and by nine when the sun had broken through I removed my heavy shawl the same which you dear Mother knitted for me so you can be assured I did not suffer. At ten we made a stop Mrs. Maria Barrett pronouncing she was suffering agony from Backache and so we pulled up at an Inn whereof I have forgot the name
Wilson paused. It seemed important, so early in her chronicle, to be exact. Mother had begged her to write down every detail, swearing nothing was too trivial for her and Ellen and May and Fanny to want to know. She could see them now in her head, reading this letter, when it arrived, so many times they would almost memorize it. And she could not remember the name of that first inn. But with no difficulty at all she could remember well enough the noise and confusion and her own fear. Mrs. Maria Barrett was shown into a private room and her sister with her, and both their maids and Wilson did not know what to do. No one directed her, no one troubled about her. Mrs. Barrett’s maid ignored her timid request as to where she should go, but then perhaps she had spoken so softly she had not been heard. So she had stood on the threshold of the parlor, not knowing whether to enter with the ladies or not, and then she had been pushed out of the way by a woman bearing a tray of refreshments and the door had closed in her face. She had not had the courage to open it again. And so she turned, heart thumping, seeing nothing for it but to return to the coach and wait. But Mr. Barrett had taken pity on her. He found her lurking near the coach and gave a great “Hey! What’s this? What’s to do? Not eating, miss?” She blushed and lowered her head, desperately confused. He held out his hand, which she had been too shy to take, and took her back into the inn and seated her in a quiet corner and ordered the landlord to see to her wants, and chucked her under the chin before he left, saying she would have to learn to speak up for herself if she was going to London.
She did not want to write any of this to her mother. The thought of her own confusion and distress over such a simple thing as entering an inn was painful to her. She had not known what to ask for, even. The landlord, impatient and irritable, had stood over her and she could only think to say water and bread. Water and bread were what she got, the water brackish and the bread hard. But she chewed and swallowed and tried not to think of her mother’s knead cakes, the warmth of them melting the jam made from their own black currants and the fragrance of the baking still in the air:
—but we Rested and Fed and went on our way Refreshed. We stopped again at midday, I know not where, and again Mrs. Barrett had the Backache and walked about with a deal of groaning, I am sure, and after she had repaired to a bed and lain upon it until two we once more set off. It was a long weary afternoon Mother and though there was much to see I could not look at all the country we passed through without some tears before my eyes for thinking of Home and you dear Mother—
But it was her mother who had wanted her to go, to snatch this opportunity and get away from home. Mother said it might never come again and at twenty-three she had to be thinking of this and not find herself slaving and working her fingers to the bone as Mother had always done. To go to London and into a lady’s service was a great thing to poor Mother, who had never done anything but wash and scrub and clean and, most of all, sew and whose ability to read and write had done her little good. Mother, married at seventeen and widowed at twenty-five, for whom nothing had ever gone right. She had kept her cottage only because she was a good worker and the master did not need it, and the mistress valued her as a seamstress, but she had no rights to it, nothing; she was only the widow of an estate worker, she could be turned out at a moment’s notice as she never tired of reminding her daughters. All of them must find work so when the time came there was a chance they could fend for themselves. And to this end Mother drove them all on, snatching a place for Wilson as scullery maid when she was thirteen and urging her to work double hard and be noticed and rise in the world.
Which she had done, though it was hard to be noticed when she was so shy and quiet and afraid. First she was under maid, then at sixteen took a place as second parlormaid at the Barretts’ house until Mrs. Barrett’s lady’s maid fell ill and she was called to step in and take her place for a month. She had no training to it, nothing, she knew only how to scour pans and sweep floors and open doors and, lately, how to dust and set a table under a housekeeper’s direction. But she did not know how to brush clothes or braid hair or any other essential lore for waiting on a lady. Mrs. Barrett taught her. She liked to teach her own maids how to do things as she wanted and no other way and preferred them to come to her without knowing any other person’s ways. But after a month her own maid was recovered and had not been ill since and Wilson had been encouraged by Mrs. Barrett to look elsewhere for a situation that was worthy of her. She had done better, she had found one for her herself, with old Mrs. Graham-Clarke in Pilgrim Street, and Mother was thrilled. She stayed nearly seven years with Mrs. Graham-Clarke, from 1837 to 1844, until April this year, when Mrs. Barrett had come to see her and told her of this very special situation to a young unmarried lady who was a distant relative by marriage of hers and lived in London. Mother had been ecstatic. The wage was sixteen guineas a year and all found, six more than she was getting in Newcastle.
Wilson could not understand Mother’s urgent pleas to take this London situation. Did she want to be rid of her? Did she not want her near? But both these explanations were so patently false that she could only fall back on her mother’s given reason, the same she had always given: she wanted all her daughters to do well for themselves. London was, by her standards, doing supremely well, though Mother had never been to London and knew little of it. She said she did not need any firsthand information. London was where the Queen was, London was where the rich and famous were. And, Mrs. Barrett had said, this young lady’s family were one of the first families in London, she believed. She gave a guarantee that Wilson would find no better, no more respectable, no kinder household in all of London. The maid whose situation she would take, Mrs. Barrett had said, was leaving in tears and only because she was to be married. Everyone loved the lady for whom Wilson would work. Mrs. Barrett had tears in her own eyes as she described her distant cousin, Miss Elizabeth Moulton Barrett. She told Wilson what a sad, wasted figure Miss Barrett was, an invalid, almost a recluse, so sweet and delicate and gentle, and moreover a poet of some acclaim. Mother had started to say it was her duty to go to such a lady and help her but Mrs. Barrett had interrupted to say it was a privilege. But it was so far away and she had never been out of Newcastle, except once to Durham and then she was glad to get home. She would not see her family for a year and yet there was Mother, pushing her to go, not crying at all.
Reading Group Guide
1. Did you find Wilson a sympathetic, likeable character? Why or why not?
2. Early on in their relationship, Elizabeth tells Wilson that she would like the two of them to be friends. Do you think they in fact develop a friendship over the course of their years together, or would you describe their personal relationship in a different way?
3. This novel has much to say about the relationship between the upper and lower classes in Victorian England. Would you say the author is more sympathetic to the gentry or the servants in this story? Can you recall any specific ways in which she shows her sympathies?
4. The author describes here the relationship between Wilson and Mrs. Browning: “Without [Wilson] wishing it to be so, it seemed in the nature of things for her always to seek favor and her mistress to bestow it. Always…she was the supplicant...” Why do you think this is so? Would you call Wilson a subservient woman by nature, or do you think she behaves that way only in order to succeed in her job and her place in society?
5. Why do you think Wilson ended up marrying an illiterate man with little ambition rather than one of her previous suitors who seemed more likely to advance his station in life?
6. The relationship between Wilson and Elizabeth is a very intense one, subject to continual warmings and coolings, hurts and emotional reunions. Why do you think these two women are so important to each other and form such a deep connection?
7. What opinion do you have of Robert Browning as the author has portrayed him? Do you find him a sympathetic and loving husband? A caring father? Does he seem self-centered, or just a typical man of his era?
8. Wilson’s son Oreste spends years living with her sister. In your opinion was this the best solution available, given Wilson’s situation, or do you think she could have had him live with her if she’d really wanted to?
9. Why do you think Elizabeth’s father totally cuts her off when she leaves home, in spite of the fact that she marries immediately to a perfectly respectable Englishman?
10. Margaret Forster got the impulse to write about Wilson after completing a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, saying that when she’d finished it, that she still wasn’t finished with Wilson. She said she was haunted by it, and felt the need to further explore this maid and close companion to the poet. Why do you think Forster was so intrigued by Wilson? Do you find her intriguing? Do you think she is a predictable character or a contradictory, surprising one?
11. Why do you think Elizabeth B. Browning was so passionately interested in the Italian war news and Wilson was so very uninterested?
12. What role does Elizabeth’s dog Flush play in the story? And how does Elizabeth’s relationship with her dog change as the novel progresses?
13. Lady’s Maid is set between the years of 1844 and 1861. Did you feel much sense of the events going on in the larger world outside the novel?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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.
Lady's Maid does exactly what I want historical fiction to do--it takes us to a time and place not our own, tells us a story we think we already know from a different perspective, and personalizes names and dates that would otherwise be just...well...names and dates. LM is a first-person narrative, told by Wilson, the personal maid of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Following her story from her initial hiring through EBB's death, the reader gets insight into the day-to-day realities of life as a upper-floors servant and how that affects one's finances, hopes, goals, and security. Wilson's life is not without joy and romance of her own (rather than just that of her employer), it is often hard to read because of the choices she makes and the resulting consequences. It was especially interesting to read a non-romanticized view of EBB and see her as a person with very real flaws, whose sheltered life is propped up by the support and sacrifice of paid employees such as Wilson.
I am not familiar with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry although I have heard of her. I found her to be a lazy overly dramatic and piteous human. However I liked meeting her through Wilson. I enjoyed this story for it's discussions of friendship and how servitude distorts and destroys it.
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time! A fascinating story about interesting people. Very well-developed characters. Like many, I've always been intrigued by the romantic and unusual story of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and this is a wonderful telling from the unique viewpoint of Elizabeth's Lady's maid, who was with her for many years. But more than that, it is an indepth story of a woman who lived a complicated life with strength and bravery. I highly recommend this book.
Great book. Really enjoyed it...