When I came up with the idea of using a random number generator to select one book for me every month, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was letting myself in for. I needn’t have worried about January’s choice though, as it seems to have been remarkably kind to me in my first month. Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster is a book which I added to my wishlist after it was recommended in a discussion about good neo-Victorian novels, along with several other titles which are also waiting patiently on the shelves now. A copy turned up on BookMooch not long afterwards, and so it came to have a home on my shelves. I probably wouldn’t have read it for quite some time though, had it not been January’s TBR Lucky Dip selection.
Lady’s Maid tells the story of Wilson, a girl from the northeast who becomes lady’s maid to Elizabeth Barrett. At first she feels alone and awkward in her situation, but slowly she comes to love her mistress and grows in confidence. Wilson becomes increasingly important in Miss Barrett’s life, facilitating her secret marriage to Robert Browning and flight to a new life in Italy. Throughout this, Wilson has her own life to contend with: her family, her suitors and her hopes for the future.
I really enjoyed this book. It struck an excellent balance between being the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s maid, encompassing her daily life, concerns, struggles and interactions with other people in service, and the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as told by her maid, who is the initial draw of this book for most people, I should imagine, myself included. Margaret Forster has written a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and so, feeling reasonably safe that it was as historically accurate as I was likely to get, I thoroughly enjoyed this glimpse into the lives of two of the great Victorian poets. I fell in love with her husband’s poetry from the moment that I opened the Best Words anthology that was the bane of many a GCSE student’s existence at that time and read the lines:
That’s my last duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
In fact, this book has reminded me of how much I enjoy Robert Browning, and I may make one of his books my poetry offering for next month. His wife, however, is not someone I’ve read very much (the ubiquitous ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ excepted) and after reading Lady’s Maid I’m so cross with her that I don’t feel any inclination to do so any time soon. Elizabeth Barrett in this book is utterly selfish; she is kind and affectionate towards Wilson only when she needs her or has no better occupation, and as soon as Wilson asks her a favour or goes against her wishes then she is petulant, tetchy and sometimes downright cruel. I spent most of the book feeling righteous indignation of Wilson’s behalf for her treatment at the hands of her mistress, and this is indicative of Forster’s skillful storytelling.
The style of the novel is unusual but effective. It alternates between third person narration, although the perspective that this reports is always Wilson’s and the reader never sees the thoughts of any other character except through her own interpretations of what they might be, and letters from Wilson to various other characters. The writing segues seamlessly between the two forms, often running sentences across the break between the two so that the narrator will begin saying something and Wilson herself will finish it. I thought that this semi-epistolary style worked very well, as it gives the impression that more of the book comes direct to the reader from Wilson than really does, while simultaneously allowing Forster a freedom of writing which would have been necessarily restricted by a novel comprised purely of letters. It is a clever technique and results in an engaging, emotionally involving read.
The letters are also a means of reflecting Wilson’s growing confidence and learning, both personally and stylistically. Initially, her letters are timid and shy, desperate to please the recipient and so hiding a lot of the truth that is revealed to the reader in the narrative sections of the novel. As Wilson becomes increasingly sure of herself, she begins to be more open and honest. She express opinions and even makes demands. At the same time, her letters go from being full of unnecessary capitalisations and awkward phrasing to being written in a smooth, warm, elegant prose. I thought it was an interesting touch that the writing skills of both Wilson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning develop only as they begin to blossom personally.
Lady’s Maid was a very satisfying book to read. Margaret Forster’s writing kept me engrossed with her wonderful ability to describe locations and capture characters. I definitely recommend this one.
Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster. Published by Fawcett Columbine, 1990, pp. 549. Originally published in 1990.