Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster is a work of historical fiction. It is told in narrative and epistolary form from the point of view of Lily Wilson–lady’s maid to the sickly, bedridden poet, Elizabeth Barrett. The novel spans the sixteen years Wilson served Elizabeth, and explores the intense and imbalanced relationship between master and servant.
When the book begins, Wilson is a young, naive woman just out of her mother’s home. She is the ideal servant–anticipating the needs of Ms. Barrett before they are expressed, perfectly matching her moods, and assuming whatever role Elizabeth needs her to assume. Wilson is completely devoted to Elizabeth, and finds her entire identity in her relationship to the poet. Wilson supports Elizabeth through all of her illnesses, recoveries, and eventual secret marriage to the poet Robert Browning. She travels with the Brownings to Italy and all through Europe, attends Elizabeth in child loss and birth, and feels like a member of the family.
It is as Lily matures and begins to feel her own need for a life outside of her employer that conflicts arise. As Lily finds her own identity, Mrs. Browning’s resentment grows, and Lily finds that she is not as valued by the Brownings as she had hoped.
The book is dense and builds slowly, but at some point in the rising action it becomes completely engulfing. The subtleties of the relationship between the two women that seemed as insignificant as the arrangement of pillows and the proper choice of teacup, surged up with meaning and force once the conflicts began. The manipulation and passive aggression that Wilson was forced to endure left me shaking in frustration.
Great books do several things. First, they leave me wanting more. I was glad to see that Ms. Forster might consider a sequel based on some more research she had done on Wilson. Next, I can’t stop thinking about great books. Scenes surface and new understandings result. I want to go back and reread sections for greater clarity and enjoyment. Finally, great books send me looking for more information on their subjects, authors, and themes. I want to learn more about the poets in the book, the servant, and the locations where they lived in Italy.
Lady’s Maid is a tour de force. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in quality, character-driven, literary fiction.