Lady’s Maid – Margaret Forster

1 April 2008
Chapters 1-5…
…which is still early days because this is a long book. It’s interesting to read it so soon after Agnes Grey. In that book Anne Bronte stuck to a narrow first-person narration – narrow in the sense of restrictive, and in the sense of the strait-laced Agnes, daughter of the parsonage and all-round grey eminence. Without being eminent. Forster lets Wilson have her own voice too, in letters home, but these are only short sections in a traditional third person narrative that lets us right inside Wilson’s head. It’s easy reading, because Wilson is honest enough – and if her vision is too narrow to explain the mysteries of 1840s middles class society Forster will drop enough hints for us to work things out for ourselves. Like, after some months in Wimpole Street the love interest has finally arrived – and, like Agnes, Wilson doesn’t recognise it for what it is. But we do, and so does Elizabeth Barrett. And it turns out Timothy’s a reader and a thinker: he allows Forster to explore the political climate of the 1840s, and she shows Wilson beginning to understand the discrepancies between the lives of different classes. To be fair, she’d begun to realise this for herself as she takes up chicken breasts for Flush the spaniel: her own family had scrimped to pay for chicken when one of her sisters had been ill in Newcastle.

As for Elizabeth…. Is she as spoilt as the dog? She’s certainly manipulative and self-centred, and Wilson has remarked to Timothy how easy it is to live a privileged life whilst writing poems about poverty: another bizarre inconsistency to go with chicken for the dog. But there’s more to it than Elizabeth the little rich girl. The word prison has been used to describe Flush’s plight when he should be out running in the park – but it’s the mistress’s plight as well. She aches for friendship, mourns the loss of the previous maid – to a marriage she can’t help hoping is miserable – and tries to blur the distinctions between her own class and her maid’s for the sake of the intimacy she craves. Poor old Wilson, trapped by the needs of an invalid. Except, except…. Elizabeth has mentioned how she dreams of Italy for the winter, despite what her overbearing father might have to say about it. We know Elizabeth will end up there one day, and Wilson, while swearing how she never wants to leave England, begins to dream a little herself….

4 April
Chapters 6-12
A bit of water’s passed under the bridge – but it doesn’t pass quickly and not a lot has happened. Ok, so the love interest has come and gone for Wilson, whilst for Elizabeth it’s arrived like a three-ring circus, complete with parade…. At this point in the novel love interest No 2 has arrived for Wilson, and she’s tempted. But all Reginald can offer is security and, whilst Wilson has just been subject to a horror-show in Shoreditch – a vision of what lies in wait for any working woman if things don’t go right – we know she’s not going to accept any offer from him. We’re only a third of the way through the novel, for God’s sake.

It’s still perfectly readable, but I suppose I look for something richer than the thin stuff Forster serves up. Or not thin, maybe, but diluted – by the everyday, the slow, painstaking building up of the tiny world the characters inhabit. Any social/political points are few and understated… so we read the Shoreditch episode mainly via one of Wilson’s careful letters home (although Forster briefly allows us to see the terrifying ground opening up in Wilson’s imagination): some novelists would give us gritty details, but Forster gives us merely a fleeting impression. And the feminist theme is kept low key: Elizabeth’s pronouncements sound faddish and naïve; Wilson’s recognition of the social and legal inequities seem terribly slow in coming…. The only reference to sexual love comes from Wilson’s sister (on one of Wilson’s annual visits up north, where it’s right grim). I didn’t believe a word of her frank description of ‘his’ thrustin’ and her own orgasm.

So what do we have as, with the three-ring circus surely ready to open for business, things will have to change soon? There’s the characterisation of Elizabeth, as manipulative as ever and seeming even more spoilt and self-absorbed: her disregard for Wilson’s long-term happiness is unforgivable and totally believable. We have the control-freak father, determined to keep his daughters around him. (Forster doesn’t need to say a word about the warped psychology of the wife-substitutes he seems to want – so she doesn’t.) There’s Wilson herself, wiser and more mature about herself and the rich people around her…. I don’t know why I complain so much. Maybe I just don’t like long books where it takes a realistic amount of time for things to actually develop. But it would be nice for something to happen soon.

Chapter 13, first half
Phew. Just as Father is about to send the whole family off to the country, Elizabeth’s gone and got married. And she only fainted twice on the way to the church. (No mention of Reginald since this chapter began. Why aren’t we surprised?)

11 April
Chapters 13-23(?)
What a difference a couple of chapters make. Two days ago I was about to write, again, about how little was happening. Ok, years pass, they make the move to Italy, Elizabeth has the regulation number of unhappy miscarriages before finally giving birth to Pen; Wilson encounters love interest No 3 – who discards himself just as Wilson decides the earth-shaking sort of love Elizabeth talks about doesn’t seem to be for her…. And more years pass, Wilson becomes a second mother to the child, Wilson learns to stand up for herself a bit, Wilson visits her family (now unhappily banged up in slummy Sheffield), Wilson… et cetera. As a character (and as a human being) Elizabeth seems to have developed not at all, still cherry-picking the elements of Wilson’s personality and presence that suit her best. Browning is a cipher: Forster doesn’t seem to do men in this book. Not convincingly, anyway. And the themes that were set up early on – class tensions (the ones that Elizabeth only recognises when it suits her), the rights of women – trundle along. Forster touches on them so lightly you can easily miss them, reading them as Wilson’s feisty (or feisty-lite) personality gradually asserting itself.

But, some time (I think) during Chapter 21, it’s as though Forster decides things need stirring up a bit. Enter – literally, although not straight away – love interest No 4. Forster throws everything at the first dramatic event in the novel since the (underwhelming) removal to Italy: looks to die for, an affectionate personality and, most important of all, the ability to turn Wilson’s loins quite runny. He’s The One and, joy of joys, he’s not married. Or gay. After a very respectable delay, and as circumspectly as she can, she goes for him. Before, it’s been discreet trysts during their meagre time off, but on Christmas Day… Wilson experiences as big a hit as her sister talked about all those years ago. Soon, well, there’s a lot more of this stuff. Miraculously, after months of it, Wilson doesn’t get pregnant. And then she does. She doesn’t care. What she has with Whatsisname is the most important thing in her life, and she always knew there’d be music to face eventually. By way of a stratagem they get themselves married, but it’s months since she conceived. Surreptitiously she’s been letting out her clothes but, at last, the day comes for her to tell all to her bosses. You know, the ones who like to think they’re her friends – although Forster’s always made sure Wilson’s had her eyes open to the hypocrisy of this little fiction….

First we get Elizabeth’s response, which is icy. No surprise there, then: ten years of pseudo-friendship mean as much as we all knew. But once Browning calls her in I had to stop reading. It’s a coup of sorts. Everything we know has prepared us for this but, like Wilson herself, we’ve allowed the frankly Mills and Boonish passion to carry us along. Browning is judgmental, patronising, Victorian. Forster plays a sort of game: a famously liberal 19th Century couple, the politically correct Guardian readers of their day, are… what? Like everybody else, that’s what.

I don’t know what’s going to come next. I don’t even know how Wilson’s toe-curling, pelvic floor-tightening conversation with Browning ends. But it’s almost been worth the wait. Ok, it’s manipulative: Forster is doing what the makers of Capote also did, giving real celebrities feet of clay that make for good drama but, well, leave an aftertaste. However… like Capote, this is working for me. Up to now Forster has underplayed the class issues, allowed them to trickle into the narrative as if by accident. Suddenly she’s making Wilson feel their full force, and it’s devastating.

A few pages on…
…and the moment’s passed. The crisis is over. Sure, there are some lean months ahead for the dogged Wilson, but the Brownings have made their point. She’s on the back foot – just as they were on the back foot when Wilson made them concede, albeit tacitly, that they could afford to be less stingy with her pay – and she’ll have to fend for herself for a while. But she’ll get over their moralising quickly enough…. They may have the power to make her feel bad, but Forster has made her wise enough by now to see their behaviour for what it is: gentlefolk being crap in their dealings with anyone who isn’t one of them. Yep, I’ll buy that.

14 April
To Chapter 24, end of Part 2
It’s clear now that the speed of the last three or four chapters – bearing in mind that speed is a relative term in this novel – has been to get us to this point. Wilson’s had her lean time: she had to spend months in the grim North (why does Forster, a Northerner herself, always make the North so dismal?), has had to live separate from her husband, then from her child. But just when things are back, more or less, on the old footing… bang. An ill-advised night of high-class nookie means there’s another little Italian on the way, and it’s curtains for Wilson the lady’s maid. Ok, the Brownings give her some money to set herself up as a boarding-house landlady – but she’s sent home early from the summer residence, alone, and twelve years of service and apparent affection are snuffed out. Everyone has behaved exactly as we would expect – in other words, Forster hasn’t told us any more than we already knew – so… I’ll shut up about it.

20 April
To the end
At one point near the end Browning (I think) asks Wilson how long she’s known them, and it’s something like 14 years. It seems longer: if there’s one thing Forster can do, it’s give a sense of a life – I mean a whole life – as it is lived, month by month, year by year. Part Three, it transpires, is Wilson after Elizabeth. Not that Elizabeth’s dead yet, but Wilson’s been set up as a boarding house landlady, with her new baby and a half-interested husband.

There’s something quite ambitious about this last part of the novel: Forster wants to describe middle age. So Wilson cuts a rather unattractive figure – but Forster isn’t unkind: she describes, for her readership (I suppose) of middle-aged women, how there’s a sort of inevitability about the pragmatism, the knowingness about men, the fading away – even a questioning of the existence – of love. Wilson makes a reasonable success of the business, with no help from Whatsisname, who still works for the Brownings. She takes on the care of the aging poet Landor, and does it pretty well – until a final-straw incident sends her pleading to the Brownings. It’s a harrowing scene – not so much when Wilson cries in front of them, but when she overhears Elizabeth talking about her unforgivingly. Right, we think, that’s it: proof of what we’ve always known about the little rich girl….

…Except: as Elizabeth struggles through the weeks and months of her final illness, it’s clear that Wilson has always loved her. Ferdinando means little to her – she decides it was little more than animal attraction from the start – but Elizabeth…. One evening, at last, they come close to declaring their real feelings for each other. And, because we’re near the end now, we guess that when Wilson has a sleepless night in anticipation of more frankness to follow next day, and the next, it’s too late: enter Ferdinando, crying like a baby, to give her the inevitable news.

And that’s it. This is a Victorian novel, so we get the after-story of Wilson’s life in the next five decades or more. But that doesn’t matter. What we are left mulling over is the ambiguity of the central relationship – and the awful irony that owing to the timing of the crucial conversation, Wilson’s love will always have to remain unrequited. It’s literary licence on Forster’s part to give Wilson that little glimpse of a fulfilment that will never come, but, well, at least the poor downtrodden woman is left with just a little hope.

Flush – Virginia Woolf
22 April
Thought I’d give this a try. It occupies a lot of the same ground as Lady’s Maid, obviously: great literary biographies perceived from a peculiar angle. But Woolf isn’t, frankly, being terribly ambitious. It’s a squib, an extended joke. There’s some fairly broad satire: on aristocratic pretensions, with De Brett’s replaced by the Kennel Club; on the spiritualist vogue that Elizabeth Browning bought into for a while…. But most of it is harmless fun. The targets are easy ones, Flush’s point of view is shown neatly rather than brilliantly, the ecstasies of the finely-tuned Victorian sensibility are cheekily replaced by, well, dog-ecstasies.

But there’s one aspect that Woolf captures better than Forster: the horrors of life for most people in mid-19th Century London. Typically, Woolf can’t help but describe the Shoreditch low-lifes as sub-Dickensian grotesques. But at least we find out how appalling their living conditions were: people and animals cohabiting within yards of Wimpole Street; families sharing a single bedroom…. At least she spares us the smells: perhaps, even in this olfactory little book, doggy descriptions of the stink of the common people, wafting its way almost palpably to Flush’s sensitive nose, would be going a bit too far.


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