Lady's Maid: A Novel

Overview

“Fascinating . . . 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.”
–Booklist

Young and timid but full of sturdy good sense and awakening sophistication, Lily Wilson arrives in London in 1844, becoming a lady’s maid to the fragile, housebound Elizabeth Barrett. Lily is quickly drawn to her mistress’s gaiety and sharp intelligence, the power of her poetry, and her deep emotional need. It is a strange ...

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Lady's Maid: A Novel

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Overview

“Fascinating . . . 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.”
–Booklist

Young and timid but full of sturdy good sense and awakening sophistication, Lily Wilson arrives in London in 1844, becoming a lady’s maid to the fragile, housebound Elizabeth Barrett. Lily is quickly drawn to her mistress’s gaiety and sharp intelligence, the power of her poetry, and her deep emotional need. It is a strange intimacy that will last sixteen years.

It is Lily who smuggles Miss Barrett out of the gloomy Wimpole Street house, witnesses her secret wedding to Robert Browning in an empty church, and flees with them to threadbare lodgings and the heat, light, and colors of Italy. As housekeeper, nursemaid, companion, and confidante, Lily is with Elizabeth in every crisis–birth, bereavement, travel, literary triumph. As her devotion turns almost to obsession, Lily forgets her own fleeting loneliness. But when Lily’s own affairs take a dramatic turn, she comes to expect the loyalty from Elizabeth that she herself has always given.

One of history's great love stories--that of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning--makes for a magnificent historical novel: a book that evokes an era as it creates a character. Shy but sturdy Lily was more than just a lady's maid to the housebound Elizabeth Barrett; her devotion turned almost to obsession.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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)
Library Journal
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345497437
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/15/2007
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 576
  • Sales rank: 639,558
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 1.24 (d)

Reading Group Guide

1. Did you find Wilson a sympathetic, likeable character? Why or why not?

2. Early on in their relationship, Elizabeth tells Wilson that she would like the two of them to be friends. Do you think they in fact develop a friendship over the course of their years together, or would you describe their personal relationship in a different way?

3. This novel has much to say about the relationship between the upper and lower classes in Victorian England. Would you say the author is more sympathetic to the gentry or the servants in this story? Can you recall any specific ways in which she shows her sympathies?

4. The author describes here the relationship between Wilson and Mrs. Browning: “Without [Wilson] wishing it to be so, it seemed in the nature of things for her always to seek favor and her mistress to bestow it. Always…she was the supplicant...” Why do you think this is so? Would you call Wilson a subservient woman by nature, or do you think she behaves that way only in order to succeed in her job and her place in society?

5. Why do you think Wilson ended up marrying an illiterate man with little ambition rather than one of her previous suitors who seemed more likely to advance his station in life?

6. The relationship between Wilson and Elizabeth is a very intense one, subject to continual warmings and coolings, hurts and emotional reunions. Why do you think these two women are so important to each other and form such a deep connection?

7. What opinion do you have of Robert Browning as the author has portrayed him? Do you find him a sympathetic and loving husband? A caring father? Does he seem self-centered, or just a typical man of his era?

8. Wilson’s son Oreste spends years living with her sister. In your opinion was this the best solution available, given Wilson’s situation, or do you think she could have had him live with her if she’d really wanted to?

9. Why do you think Elizabeth’s father totally cuts her off when she leaves home, in spite of the fact that she marries immediately to a perfectly respectable Englishman?

10. Margaret Forster got the impulse to write about Wilson after completing a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, saying that when she’d finished it, that she still wasn’t finished with Wilson. She said she was haunted by it, and felt the need to further explore this maid and close companion to the poet. Why do you think Forster was so intrigued by Wilson? Do you find her intriguing? Do you think she is a predictable character or a contradictory, surprising one?

11. Why do you think Elizabeth B. Browning was so passionately interested in the Italian war news and Wilson was so very uninterested?

12. What role does Elizabeth’s dog Flush play in the story? And how does Elizabeth’s relationship with her dog change as the novel progresses?

13. Lady’s Maid is set between the years of 1844 and 1861. Did you feel much sense of the events going on in the larger world outside the novel?

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