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Lady's Maid    by Margaret Forster order for
Lady's Maid
by Margaret Forster
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2007 (1991)
Hardcover, Softcover
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Lady's Maid of the title is Lily Wilson, who travels from the north to London, urged on by her mother, to become lady's maid to the fragile poet, Elizabeth Barrett (then in her late thirties), a role that comes to dominate her life thereafter. Lily writes home regularly to her mother (who has second sight), reporting on events. We see Elizabeth Barrett's life - and her relationship with poet Robert Browning - from Lily's point of view, in an absorbing story that I found in many ways reminiscent of the popular TV series Upstairs, Downstairs.

When Lily, referred to as Wilson by her mistress, begins to care for Elizabeth Barrett and her spoiled little dog Flush, the poet is a reclusive invalid, whom her family tiptoes around. Lily can barely persuade her charge (who can walk but does so rarely) to allow herself to be taken out for air in a wheelchair. The household is dominated by Elizabeth's father. Mr. Barrett visits his favorite daughter every day on his return from the city, often bearing a small gift. Lily, along with the reader, wonders why Elizabeth Barrett is always ill - it seems to be some weakness of the lungs, combined with ongoing depression that began after the death of a beloved brother.

Lily befriends Minnie Robinson, the housekeeper and Elizabeth Barrett's previous lady's maid, Crow, who left to marry and is now content with her husband and a new baby. And we see her cautiously developing relationships with a series of men, beginning with a new footman, Timothy. These involvements are discouraged by her mistress who's negative about the married state (she tells Lily that women abrogate all rights) but perhaps selfishly wants to keep a good servant who makes her comfortable. Lily wants more from life than being a lady's maid until she's pensioned off - she yearns for a family of her own.

As the novel continues, and letters are exchanged between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, the author also reveals developments in the lives of both Elizabeth's and Lily's siblings - in particular Henrietta Barrett's romance with a soldier, and illness and increasingly difficult (and worrying) circumstances in the Wilson family. Lily helps her mistress to elope with Robert Browning, witnesses their marriage and supports Elizabeth through several miscarriages and the birth of her son Wideemann (nicknamed Pen), as they travel in Europe, mainly in Italy. The maid is courted by a handsome Italian soldier but it comes to nothing.

Lily remains precariously poised between friendship and maid of all work to Elizabeth. Then she falls in love with Ferdinando, an Italian who comes to work for the Brownings. But she's afraid to tell her mistress, and that fear creates a growing rift in their relationship as resentment and pain builds in Lily over her role, and how insignificant her needs are to the woman she has considered to some degree a friend but who now finds her a nuisance. Lily muses that 'Always, maid or matron, she was the supplicant and her standing varied with her usefulness.'

The novel ends with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's death, which finally frees Lily from their complex attachment and her yoke of servitude. I enjoyed Lady's Maid very much for its window into the unusual and famed union of two renowned poets, but also for its depiction of the essential unhealthiness of living someone else's life rather than one's own. This novel would make an excellent choice for reading groups.

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