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Is it the Singer or the Song?,
This review is from: Lady's Maid: An Historical Novel (Paperback)
What makes a book compelling? The singer or the song?
Margaret Forster's Lady's Maid is one of those books which makes you want to get back to it as soon as you can, but at the same time gives you a feeling of swimming in cement and déjà vu!
It recounts the interacting lives of the Victorian Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her lady's maid Elizabeth Wilson. Although the women share the same first name they do not share the same sensibilities. In the 21st century they may have been great friends, but in class conscious Victorian England this was not possible. Wilson was part of an underclass who were called servants - a term which no one in this century would dare to use. Both Browning and Wilson had to adhere to the etiquette of the day, which required both employer and servant to follow a strict code of conduct. However intimate Wilson becomes (and we see her doing the most intimate things to look after Browning), she could never become what she would have liked to have been to her lady.
Browning comes across , on the one hand, as a selfish ,superior, powerful woman whose position allows her to affect the quality of Wilson's life. She is shocked when Wilson reveals she is pregnant out of wedlock and condemns her to a separate life from her child, which she has the means to prevent. Browning, on the other hand, is a woman who loves her husband and son deeply , is very sensitive to family losses and what is happening in the political arena. And,she is,of course,a great poet, but the book only has a short reference to some lines of her poetry. As readers we have to acknowledge that we only see Browning from Wilson's point of view. By use of letters written by Wilson to various people, we see Wilson's personal point of view . Interspersed as they are with the rest of the text, we continue to see events through Wilson's eyes, but we never see a full picture of Browning.
What makes this book compelling is the story of the relationship between two women from different backgrounds, who for about fifteen years in the middle of the 19th century, are more or less inseparable. The story is not outstanding because it involves a celebrity of the day. It is outstanding because we see the transformation of an insecure and reserved woman from a humble background become someone who earns the respect of both the Brownings.
What also shines through is Elizabeth Wilson's great love for Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Arguably, Wilson is intoxicated by Browning. She will do anything for her, but not it seems for her own flesh and blood. But does Wilson ever become her friend? That is debatable.
I was very touched by the love Wilson has for the Brownings' son, Pen. She seems to love him more than her own two children, Oreste and Pilade. I found it very interesting to note in the Afterword that Pen became Wilson's saviour and eventually the two of them lived together until Wilson died.
So is it the singer or the song? In Margaret Forster's case it is definitely the singer! Forster's ability to capture the mood of the period , use the right register for all her characters and keep you captivated by strategic narrative hooks is exemplary.