There is an adage - "No good deed goes unpunished." That's all I could think of as I read this novel that revolves around Elizabeth Wilson, the long-suffering and dedicated lady's maid to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Margaret Forster wrote a biography of EBB before she branched out to center a novel around the young woman who came to the Barrett household when they had re-trenched to Wimpole Street in London of the 1840's.
Young Wilson comes to London from her hometown of Newcastle, recommended by a relative of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She takes up a reclusive residency and waits on EBB hand and foot through her darkest and most pathetic period of collapse. Wilson becomes thoroughly devoted to her mistress and gradually gains her trust and complete dependence, which begins to beg the question in the reader, "Just how much must a young maid of the Victorian Era give up for one's lady?"
Young Wilson is drawn completely into the lives of the Barrett family and is privy to all the familial foibles and misadventures. Key among these is the romance that develops between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Wilson is drawn into the plot to elope, the honeymoon journey to Paris and the trip on to Italy where the Brownings set up housekeeping. Browning and Wilson nurse Elizabeth as she regains her health and vigor. She helps Browning wean Elizabeth from her daily doses of laudanum. Wilson helps EBB through numerous miscarriages until one pregnancy is successful and her son is born. Wilson takes on the role of nanny to young Pen, while keeping her role as lady's maid and nurse to Elizabeth.
All this duty monopolizes her every moment. She strives to be the exemplary maid, comforting nurse, steadying nanny, discreet employee. She needs to keep her place in service in order to be able to send part of her salary home to her needy mother and younger sisters. She is just in her 20's and should be looking for her own soulmate, but how can she ? When she finally meets and falls in love with a fellow employee, she is placed in such a dilemma. How does one 'have a married life' and stay in service? It is at this point in the book, that the reader is faced with the inequities of class. It is all well and good for the Brownings to have a romantic and ideal married and family life, but their servants are not considered as needing the same. It is all well and good for the Brownings to travel the length of Europe to see family and socialize with their intellectual peers, however it is unthinkable that their staff wish for time to visit their families. The inconvenience would be too much for poor Elizabeth and Robert. Therefore, when Wilson marries and has a child, she is set aside and is only allowed to return to service when she leaves her own son with a sister in England and returns to Italy to take up her duties. She is separated from her husband again when she bears a second child and must leave service altogether. Yet, she is still tied to the Brownings because of her close relationship with young Pen Browning and because of her skill in nursing Elizabeth during her long spells of collapse.
Forster has done an excellent job of portraying the class differences of the Victorian Era while telling the (mostly true) story of Wilson and her years of service to the Brownings. I was so completely drawn into the story that I stayed up way too late reading to see how Wilson's life would infold. Having never heard of Margaret Forster, I finished Lady's Maid wondering what other books she has written. I will definitely be searching out some of her other titles to see if she can hold my interest as closely as she did with this book.