Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Absorbing....Heartbreaking....Forster paints a vivid picture of class, station, hypocrisy and survival in Victorian society.....Grips the reader's imagination on every page." San Francisco Chronicle
"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
"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." Library Journal
In Forster's historically authentic novel, Elizabeth Wilson, Elizabeth Barrett's maid and confidante, describes her daily experiences, her impressions of the large household and, especially, her sickly but charismatic mistress's relationship with Mr. Browning.
About the Author
Margaret Forster is the author of best-selling memoirs, Hidden Lives and Precious Lives, acclaimed biographies of Daphne du Maurier and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and of many successful novels, most recently The Memory Box.
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. Wilsons son Oreste spends years living with her sister. In your opinion was this the best solution available, given Wilsons situation, or do you think she could have had him live with her if shed really wanted to?
9. Why do you think Elizabeths 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 shed finished it, that she still wasnt 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 Elizabeths dog Flush play in the story? And how does Elizabeths relationship with her dog change as the novel progresses?
13. Ladys 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?