cover image Lady's Maid

Lady's Maid

Margaret Forster. Doubleday Books, $19.95 (548pp) ISBN 978-0-385-41792-1

British novelist Forster (Georgy Girl ), whose biographies include Elizabeth Barrett Browning , lures the reader into the attic of the famous house on Wimpole Street, where Barrett's maid, Elizabeth Wilson, composes copious letters to her mother in the North Country. Her correspondence, the fulcrum of the novel, describes her daily experiences, her impressions of the large household and, especially, her sickly but charismatic mistress. Wilson's devotion is such that she forsakes her homeland, her family, a suitor and even her own reputation in order to aid Miss Elizabeth and her suitor Mr. Browning when they elope to Europe. At this point, the novel falters; Forster is not quite capable of juggling the glamorous settings, Wilson's frustrations (the Brownings, though generous in their affection, cannot see Wilson as other than a servant), her difficult marriage and family life. Wilson's ambivalence about Miss Elizabeth, whom she loves and resents, is the most interesting aspect of the novel, but despite otherwise sensitive handling, it is almost glibly resolved in the conclusion. On the whole, however, this is top-drawer historical fiction, akin to the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs in its appeal and its overtures toward discussions of class. 50,000 first printing; $50,000 ad/promo. (Mar.)