Lady's Maid by Margaret Forster

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Lady's Maid by Margaret Forster

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A lightly fictionalised account of the life of Elizabeth Wilson, maid to poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It's rich in detail and beautifully written but the pace does drag a little in parts.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 544 Date: June 1991
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0140147612

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Lady's Maid tells the lightly fictionalised story of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her maid, Elizabeth Wilson. Barrett Browning led a somewhat solitary life having always suffered from ill health – there are occasional hints that she might have suffered from TB – and the novel revolves around her rather claustrophobic relationship with Wilson, who was her maid for some fifteen years from 1844.

Wilson matures from a very shy twenty-three year old under Barrett Browning's guidance – and it's soon obvious that Barrett Browning needs Wilson more than Wilson needs her, but there's mutual affection even if in a mistress and servant relationship. Wilson was originally Barrett Browning's maid when she lived in Wimpole Street and before her famous elopement with fellow poet Robert Browning. She accompanied the pair when they went abroad and for many years would live either with or near to them. It was, though, an uneven relationship and it can be argued that Barrett Browning treated her maid very shabbily. (In an after word Foster explains that Robert Browning made Wilson an allowance of £10 a year after his wife's death – but made clear that he was under to obligation to do so.)

Forster wrote this book after finishing a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: she was interested in Wilson and in the relationship between the two women and decided to explore it further. The background research is worn lightly but is reflected in the quality of the book, particularly in relation to the time in Italy. There's an elegant contrast between the grand dramas of the Brownings' life and the more mundane loves and losses which were Wilson's lot. Occasionally though, the pace of the book did drag a little with episodes of passion and melodrama interspersed with rather too much in the way of domesticity and almost too much attention to detail. At over five hundred pages it is perhaps too long.

It's not a book which compels you to turn the pages but it does get under your skin. I read it over many sittings and even whilst having other books come and go. It's a book to savour rather than to hurry and it's thought-provoking, particularly with regard to the other side to the Brownings and Wilson's low expectations. The writing is superb and the interweaving of fact and fiction is seamless.

If this book appeals to you then you will also enjoy Forster's The Battle for Christabel.

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Buy Lady's Maid by Margaret Forster at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lady's Maid by Margaret Forster at


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