Elizabeth Wilson was one of several daughters of a poor Newcastle widow in 1844 when, at the age of twenty-three, she took the opportunity to travel to London to become the private maid of Elizabeth Moulton Barrett, a sickly poetess. She soon became indispensable to her mistress, and helped to engineer the secret marriage of Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning.
Wilson moved with the Brownings to Italy. She fell in love and married an Italian. The Brownings proved to be unjust employers— they underpaid Wilson, and forced her to abandon her child. Still, she remained loyal to them until her mistress’ death.
LADY’S MAID is based on the few facts that are known about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s real-life servant. Forster writes in Wilson’s voice, that of an uneducated Englishwoman in the mid-nineteenth century. As a result, much of the dialogue seems stilted. Forster often uses the device of letters between Wilson and her family to tell her story. This reduces most of the action to talk and makes the plot seem dull.
The plight of woman servants in Victorian society was terrible— that is obvious from the bad things that happen to Wilson in this novel. Still, five hundred and forty-eight pages is a lot of time to spend reading about it. The life of Wilson the lady’s maid might have been better served by an article in an academic periodical than by this ponderous tome.