Two days ago, I found mild fault with No Bed for Bacon for skating on the surface of things, without ever giving them substance. The same criticism cannot be levied at Margaret Forster’s brilliant novel Lady’s Maid, which introduces us to a young woman in service in mid-19th-century London. Yet Elizabeth Wilson is no ordinary maid. She is lady’s maid to Miss Elizabeth Barrett, the invalid daughter of a wealthy London gentleman, who has made a name for herself as a poetess. When Wilson enters Miss Elizabeth’s service in 1844, her mistress is withdrawn and easily tired, plagued by mysterious physical weakness and given to depression. As time passes, the patient Northern maid and her mercurial employer find a sympathy, deepened by Wilson’s reverence for books and by her compassion for the unworldly Miss Elizabeth. Gradually, Wilson convinces Miss Elizabeth to take turns in the park, coaxing colour into her face and strength into her limbs. Yet Wilson’s ministrations are nothing beside the impact that a new correspondent has on her mistress. Letters from the poet Mr Browning are soon the highlight of Miss Elizabeth’s day and Wilson finds herself drawn into a daring plan that will take her further from home than she ever dreamed possible. Amazingly rich, thoughtful and evocative, Forster’s novel introduced me to the full picture of the great Browning romance – seen through Wilson’s loyal but unsentimental eyes.
When Wilson arrives from Newcastle in her early twenties, she is overwhelmed by the grandeur of London and by the size of the Barrett household. She has some experience, but her quiet nature and discretion mean that she finds it hard to find friends among the other servants – with the exception of the housekeeper, Minnie Robinson. Apart from the letters she receives from her mother and sisters, Wilson’s only emotional support is her mistress, Miss Elizabeth, who comes to rely on her in a way that prompts Wilson, in turn, to redouble her loyalty. Soon Wilson is the only one who knows how to prop Miss Elizabeth up; how to brush her little dog Flush; how to calm her when she flies into one of her fits of agitation; and how to measure out the correct dose of laudanum to help her sleep. Wilson has become needed. And yet, as time passes, she becomes aware of other ways she might be needed – as wife, or mother – ways which seem to be impossible to navigate in a life of service. Perhaps that’s especially true of a life in service at the Barretts’, where Mr Barrett sternly forbids his children to contemplate marriage (preferring them to focus on faith, or intellect, or family loyalty), and Miss Elizabeth shows a distinct antipathy towards the idea of women marrying and having children. Her own former maid, Lizzie, is now a mother and beyond the pale; Lizzie’s advice, however, becomes deeply helpful as Wilson tries to understand her mistress’s contradictions.
For Miss Elizabeth is ready to have her mind changed; that’s for sure. When Wilson joins her, she is almost forty and has never imagined anything but a life devoted to study and writing. Then a switch is flicked, courtesy of Robert Browning, whose letters and (later) visits gradually thaw the protective ice around Miss Elizabeth’s heart. A plot forms: a secret marriage; a flight to Italy, with the assistance of sympathetic family friends; and the start of a new life, overshadowed by the grief of Mr Barrett’s fury, but full of possibility. As Miss Elizabeth struggles to grow stronger in the Italian sunlight, Wilson is at her side, facing her own battle. How does one go marketing in a country where one doesn’t speak the language? But Florence, where the Brownings eventually settle, is a kind country for an English woman, and soon Wilson has not only found acquaintances among the servants of other English families, but has begun to teach herself the language. Her diligence comes in useful, for soon the Brownings have a miracle – a child – and Wilson finds herself at the head of a household, trying to make ends meet, and wondering whether she might someday find the romance and happiness that has given her mistress such contentment. She will find, however, that despite her personal happiness, Miss Elizabeth can be ruthless. She is content to support Wilson; as long as Wilson’s chief focus remains herself, Miss Elizabeth. Should that change, nothing can be taken for granted.
Let me confess it here: apart from Sonnets from the Portuguese 43, I’m not familiar with the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and I didn’t know much about her life, except, of course, that she eloped with Robert Browning against the wishes of her father, and went to live in Italy. My knowledge of Browning himself is only a little less slim: a mere handful of poems, with My Last Duchess and Andrea del Sarto chief among them. So there was much to learn! And Forster is the perfect guide, because she published this novel a mere two years after writing a non-fiction biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and also edited a collection of her poetry. The novel feels like an extension of the biography: a deeper imaginative exploration of the characters, probing into the relationships between them, founded on all the available facts, and yet cast as fiction by necessity. (I also own Forster’s biography, but decided to read Lady’s Maid first because I’m more instinctively sympathetic to novels as a ‘way in’ to periods or historical personalities with which I’m not so familiar. It was the right choice.)
Forster recasts the Brownings’ story. Rather than making their great love affair the emotional heart of her story, she shifts her focus, foregrounding the more complicated relationships between Barrett Browning and Wilson. She is interested in the agency of women: in how Barrett Browning and her sisters were forbidden by their father to marry, and how they dealt with this if they fell in love; in how a working woman had to make stark choices between a comfortable life or a family; and in how mistress and maid interact. The latter is a fascinating study: how do two women navigate this kind of intensely close, but unequal relationship? Can true friendship ever blossom in such a situation? What is the employer’s duty to her servant in the long run? What can she expect in return? And how do we negotiate the difficult balance between a commercial relationship of paid service and the closer emotional relationship that inevitably develops? These questions fascinate me, probably because I have no experience of such a relationship myself (few do, nowadays, which must account for the appeal of programmes like Downton Abbey). Forster explores this particularly well because her story allows us to see beyond the mistress-servant relationship, and to follow it as necessity shapes it into something different – yet without quite removing all the bonds.
If Forster’s picture of Victorian London was engaging, her account of mid-19th century Florence was positively glorious. It had particular interest for me because the Original Idle Woman was in Florence and Rome at much the same time as the Brownings, and must have known many of the same people (for example, Miss Mitford, the ebullient friend of Miss Elizabeth’s, was a neighbour of Frances Dickinson’s and has left several rare glimpses of her childhood). So that added another pleasing dimension for me, quite apart from the enjoyment I had from reading the novel and learning about the Brownings’ lives and works. The next step, obviously, is to read Forster’s biography of Barrett Browning, to see where fact and fiction differ and to explore a more ‘formal’ presentation of the story.
As a final note, Lady’s Maid requires time. It doesn’t look like a long book, but (in my edition at least) the text is small and the pages thin, which gives it the feel of a Victorian novel; as do the frequent excerpts from letters that bring Wilson’s wider world to life. It will take you longer than you expect to read it, but it’s entirely rewarding: a deeply engaging story laced with romance and tragedy, firmly focused on the female experience and with a stout-hearted, determined heroine. A deliciously meaty, detailed story and highly recommended. One of the best historical novels I’ve read in a long time.