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Lady's maid
Forster, Margaret, 1938-2016.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 1991.
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Author Notes

Margaret Forster was born in Carlisle, England on May 25, 1938. She read history at Somerville College, Oxford. Before her writing career took off, she was a teacher at a girls' school. She is the author of over 40 books of fiction and non-fiction. Her novel include Mother, Can You Hear Me?, Have the Men Had Enough?, Lady's Maid, Private Papers, Diary of an Ordinary Woman, Over, Isa and May, The Unknown Bridesmaid, and How to Measure a Cow. Georgy Girl, published in 1965, was made into a film starring Lynn Redgrave in 1966.

She has written several memoirs including Hidden Lives, Precious Lives, and My Life in Houses. Her biography Elizabeth Barrett Browning won the Heinemann award and her 1993 biography of Daphne du Maurier won the Fawcett book prize and was filmed for the BBC as Daphne in 2007. She also wrote a history of feminism entitled Significant Sisters in 1984. She died of cancer on February 8, 2016 at the age of 77.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The author of the acclaimed biography Elizabeth Barrett Browning invents an equally fascinating portrait of Elizabeth ("Lily") Wilson, lady's maid to the invalid poet. The reader is treated to a revealing account of the passionate romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning through the eyes of an intimate observer. Though instrumental in their legendary elopement and in the establishment of the Browning household in Italy, Wilson is undervalued and underpaid by her celebrated employers. Self-absorbed and often insensitive, the Brownings exhibit the callousness of their class in regard to their servants. When Lily becomes pregnant, the Brownings refuse to accommodate her baby into their home, virtually compelling her to abandon her son shortly after his birth. Suffering the conflicts of loyalty and bitterness, Wilson nevertheless remains devoted until the death of her mistress. An authentic representation of the subordinate role of both privileged and impoverished women in Victorian society and a sterling example of historical fiction. ~--Margaret Flanagan

Publisher's Weekly Review

Elizabeth Wilson, maid to Elizabeth Barrett, witnesses with ambivalence her sickly but charismatic mistress's affair with Robert Browning. This example of top-drawer historical fiction was a BOMC main selection in cloth. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Until Wilson appeared, it seemed impossible to the agonizingly sensitive and delicate Elizabeth Barrett that anyone could replace the beloved Crow, who had deserted her mistress to marry a baker. As retiring as her new mistress and adept at ministering to the sick, the new maid soon establishes herself as the invalid poetess's defender and companion, even accompanying her in her elopement with Robert Browning. Thus begins an intense relationship that is to become the burden and support of each of their lives. Forster brilliantly explores the uneasy intimacy between mistress and servant, working-class girl and educated lady of leisure to produce a compelling character study and an engrossing novel of the colorful Browning menage. This London Times best seller is highly recommended. --Cynthia Johnson Whealler, Cary Memorial Lib., Lexington, Mass. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



CHAPTER ONE   Wilson sat up very straight. This was the first letter she had ever written in her life and she wished it to be correct in every particular. The inkwell, Mother's parting gift and purchased with some difficulty, had traveled with her. It was made of glass, with a hinged lid. The ink itself had traveled separately, tightly stoppered in a small bottle and wrapped for extra security in a piece of green felt. The felt was now spread out with the inkwell resting upon it so that, should there be any spillages, no harm would be done. Taking care to allow the surplus ink to drip off her nib, at last she wrote:   Dear Mother,   Dear Mother, we left from the Unicorn Inn at five in the morning in a Coach. I was well wrapped up and though the air was Raw not in the least chilled and by nine when the sun had broken through I removed my heavy shawl the same which you dear Mother knitted for me so you can be assured I did not suffer. At ten we made a stop Mrs. Maria Barrett pronouncing she was suffering agony from Backache and so we pulled up at an Inn whereof I have forgot the name   Wilson paused. It seemed important, so early in her chronicle, to be exact. Mother had begged her to write down every detail, swearing nothing was too trivial for her and Ellen and May and Fanny to want to know. She could see them now in her head, reading this letter, when it arrived, so many times they would almost memorize it. And she could not remember the name of that first inn. But with no difficulty at all she could remember well enough the noise and confusion and her own fear. Mrs. Maria Barrett was shown into a private room and her sister with her, and both their maids and Wilson did not know what to do. No one directed her, no one troubled about her. Mrs. Barrett's maid ignored her timid request as to where she should go, but then perhaps she had spoken so softly she had not been heard. So she had stood on the threshold of the parlor, not knowing whether to enter with the ladies or not, and then she had been pushed out of the way by a woman bearing a tray of refreshments and the door had closed in her face. She had not had the courage to open it again. And so she turned, heart thumping, seeing nothing for it but to return to the coach and wait. But Mr. Barrett had taken pity on her. He found her lurking near the coach and gave a great "Hey! What's this? What's to do? Not eating, miss?" She blushed and lowered her head, desperately confused. He held out his hand, which she had been too shy to take, and took her back into the inn and seated her in a quiet corner and ordered the landlord to see to her wants, and chucked her under the chin before he left, saying she would have to learn to speak up for herself if she was going to London.   She did not want to write any of this to her mother. The thought of her own confusion and distress over such a simple thing as entering an inn was painful to her. She had not known what to ask for, even. The landlord, impatient and irritable, had stood over her and she could only think to say water and bread. Water and bread were what she got, the water brackish and the bread hard. But she chewed and swallowed and tried not to think of her mother's knead cakes, the warmth of them melting the jam made from their own black currants and the fragrance of the baking still in the air:   --but we Rested and Fed and went on our way Refreshed. We stopped again at midday, I know not where, and again Mrs. Barrett had the Backache and walked about with a deal of groaning, I am sure, and after she had repaired to a bed and lain upon it until two we once more set off. It was a long weary afternoon Mother and though there was much to see I could not look at all the country we passed through without some tears before my eyes for thinking of Home and you dear Mother--   But it was her mother who had wanted her to go, to snatch this opportunity and get away from home. Mother said it might never come again and at twenty-three she had to be thinking of this and not find herself slaving and working her fingers to the bone as Mother had always done. To go to London and into a lady's service was a great thing to poor Mother, who had never done anything but wash and scrub and clean and, most of all, sew and whose ability to read and write had done her little good. Mother, married at seventeen and widowed at twenty-five, for whom nothing had ever gone right. She had kept her cottage only because she was a good worker and the master did not need it, and the mistress valued her as a seamstress, but she had no rights to it, nothing; she was only the widow of an estate worker, she could be turned out at a moment's notice as she never tired of reminding her daughters. All of them must find work so when the time came there was a chance they could fend for themselves. And to this end Mother drove them all on, snatching a place for Wilson as scullery maid when she was thirteen and urging her to work double hard and be noticed and rise in the world.   Which she had done, though it was hard to be noticed when she was so shy and quiet and afraid. First she was under maid, then at sixteen took a place as second parlormaid at the Barretts' house until Mrs. Barrett's lady's maid fell ill and she was called to step in and take her place for a month. She had no training to it, nothing, she knew only how to scour pans and sweep floors and open doors and, lately, how to dust and set a table under a housekeeper's direction. But she did not know how to brush clothes or braid hair or any other essential lore for waiting on a lady. Mrs. Barrett taught her. She liked to teach her own maids how to do things as she wanted and no other way and preferred them to come to her without knowing any other person's ways. But after a month her own maid was recovered and had not been ill since and Wilson had been encouraged by Mrs. Barrett to look elsewhere for a situation that was worthy of her. She had done better, she had found one for her herself, with old Mrs. Graham-Clarke in Pilgrim Street, and Mother was thrilled. She stayed nearly seven years with Mrs. Graham-Clarke, from 1837 to 1844, until April this year, when Mrs. Barrett had come to see her and told her of this very special situation to a young unmarried lady who was a distant relative by marriage of hers and lived in London. Mother had been ecstatic. The wage was sixteen guineas a year and all found, six more than she was getting in Newcastle.   Wilson could not understand Mother's urgent pleas to take this London situation. Did she want to be rid of her? Did she not want her near? But both these explanations were so patently false that she could only fall back on her mother's given reason, the same she had always given: she wanted all her daughters to do well for themselves. London was, by her standards, doing supremely well, though Mother had never been to London and knew little of it. She said she did not need any firsthand information. London was where the Queen was, London was where the rich and famous were. And, Mrs. Barrett had said, this young lady's family were one of the first families in London, she believed. She gave a guarantee that Wilson would find no better, no more respectable, no kinder household in all of London. The maid whose situation she would take, Mrs. Barrett had said, was leaving in tears and only because she was to be married. Everyone loved the lady for whom Wilson would work. Mrs. Barrett had tears in her own eyes as she described her distant cousin, Miss Elizabeth Moulton Barrett. She told Wilson what a sad, wasted figure Miss Barrett was, an invalid, almost a recluse, so sweet and delicate and gentle, and moreover a poet of some acclaim. Mother had started to say it was her duty to go to such a lady and help her but Mrs. Barrett had interrupted to say it was a privilege. But it was so far away and she had never been out of Newcastle, except once to Durham and then she was glad to get home. She would not see her family for a year and yet there was Mother, pushing her to go, not crying at all.   Excerpted from Lady's Maid by Margaret Forster All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.