After recently reading (and reviewing) Shaggy Muses, which included Flush, Elizabeth Barrett (Browning’s) spaniel dog, reading Lady's Maid, a novel about the poet (1806 – 1861) and her maid, Wilson, was doubly engaging. Although Flush is not central
to this novel, nevertheless he was one of Elizabeth B. B.’s most attentive companions. Told
in a third-person narrative, the novel centers primarily on the maid and the women’s relationship.
E.B.B. (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”) had few companions, because for much of her life she remained an invalid in terrible health, the causes of which remain somewhat ambiguous. According to one source, the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “At the age of fifteen she had injured her spine when she was attempting to saddle her pony. Seven years later the breaking of a blood vessel in the chest left her with a weakened constitution and a chronic cough.” It may also have been a combination of these weakened lungs (possibly pulmonary T.B.) and depression (she was terribly sensitive to everything, personal and political, that happened around her). Surely her lack of regular exercise and small appetite did not keep her physically healthy. She lived, for the most part, a life of the mind.
The novel revolves around Wilson, a maid to the poet for more than 15 years. She matured and blossomed under her lady’s tutelage, and both became extremely fond of – and necessary for - the other. Wilson became much more worldly, exploring London, Florence, Paris and beyond, and reading Browning’s and others’ poetry thoughtfully. Wilson had come from a working-class family in a small village but moved to London, where she lived with the poet and her family until E.B.B. met and married Robert Browning.
Even then, Wilson traveled with and lived with or next door to the couple, taking great, intimate care of the woman who sometimes for days on end didn’t get out of bed or leave her room. Although E.B.B. was frail all of her adult life, she had relatively healthy periods and was finally able to bear a son, Pen, who also grew to love Wilson as she was so much more robust ( and, presumably, more giving) than was his natural mother.
When Wilson returns home to visit her mother and sisters, as she is able to do occasionally, but for only a brief time, the narrator reflects, “So much time and energy were spent on simple tasks necessary to run the household, tasks she [Wilson] was no longer much aware of in Wimpole Street [the Barretts’ address in London]. Hours spent heating water and scrubbing clothes and floors, hours gathering vegetables and scraping, peeling and chopping them, hours devoted most of all to the sewing which provided Mother’s income. Nobody ever sat and read all day as Miss Elizabeth did, nor did they converse.”
This book is fascinating because of how sympathetically it explores this uneven relationship. E.B.B. had nothing to do except write her poems, answer letters, entertain a modest number of guests and, when she married, pay attention to her husband and later her son. She did not cook, clean, iron, sew – she remained prone, sometimes medicated, most of the time.
Was the poet fair to Wilson? She employed her for many years, and she needed her unequivocally; she gave her presents of books and even jewelry. But she was moody with Wilson, sometimes irritated, not empathetic to the maid’s personal life. The Brownings never gave her a raise, unlike Wilson’s other friends who made far more than she did. E.B.B. gave Wilson much less attention, even appeared slightly jealous, when she established her own family life, with a husband and eventually two sons. E.B.B. could not share her maid’s devotion to and time with others, and Wilson suffered from this fact.
After Wilson marries Ferdinando, also a servant for the Brownings, the narrator reflects on the maid’s thoughts: “He had the power neither of the purse nor of place. The Brownings had all the power. She [Wilson] saw it more clearly than she had ever done, though she had never been blind to the realities of her position.” That inequality of power influences every facet of Wilson and Ferdinando’s lives.
On the plus side, even when the situation seemed unbearably harsh, Wilson realized she had a prestigious job, one that her boarders, when she later ran a boarding house, envied. She got to see the world and meet fascinating, famous people. She most probably would never have gone to London or Italy, married an Italian, or visited Paris if she had not met the Brownings.
Unusual relationships, uneven ones, always make engaging reading. Were these women of entirely different classes truly friends, as E.B.B. sometimes stated? Were they a bit in love? Or did they need each other solely for what they provided? As they aged, the relationship did change quite a good deal. But never permanently – each remained vital to the other.
What is also fascinating is how this book came to be written. Forster had previously written biography (as well as novels), including one of this poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography, published in 1989. Forster became so fascinated with the poet that she decided to keep on exploring her life story. Thus, this novel, based on much reality, came about. In an afterword, we learn what eventually happened to Wilson once her “lady” died.
Despite its length (500 pages plus), which at first seemed a bit oppressive, I loved this book. Its pace was unhurried. Jane Austen or one of the Brontes comes to mind, as does Dickens for his attention to every little detail. The readers learn what the characters wore, what jewelry they favored, who they were reading, what they ate, and where they walked Flush, for example. The only thing I would have appreciated is the inclusion of small bits and pieces of either of the Brownings’ poetry.
Nevertheless, this novel comes highly recommended. Lady's Maid would be a perfect “curled up with a good book” winter read, especially for women.