For my birthday last summer, I received a couple of gift cards to book stores. I love browsing through books, so it was fun to go spend a little time picking out some new reading material. I came home with Girl Meets God, a memoir about a young woman’s journey of faith. I actually read bits of this before, but I wanted to read the whole thing. I also picked up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. I had no prior exposure to this book, but when glancing in the classics area, the back cover copy caught my attention. Finally, I purchased Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster. This is another book that I got because I liked not only the cover copy, but also the illustration and design style of the cover. (A matte finish on a paperback book always calls to me.)
Sadly, I didn’t read any of these books before 2007 ended. But after the new year was underway, I got involved in Lady’s Maid. It is the culprit who stole away many hours of the past week from my life. It is the life story of the personal servant to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. You might think you have to be a Browning lover to enjoy this book, but that is not the case. I am actually only vaguely familiar with some of her work. The life of Wilson, Browning’s maid, is intriguing. Following her, her attachment to her mistress, and her attempts to live her own life while caught in a life of true service is really compelling.
Wilson wanted to please so much. She quickly earned a spot in the heart of her mistress. Soon she was indespensible to Miss Barrett, and she even risked her position and livelihood to help Miss Barrett secretly marry Robert Browning and then left England with them so they might live their lives abroad.
The core of the book deals with the struggle Wilson has finding her place in the world and in her relationship with her mistress. If she had been a less competent servant, in some senses, her situation would have been far less complicated.
In some ways, Wilson’s struggle is not unlike our own to know how to live as individuals while still faithfully serving Christ. There is a constant back and forth in our minds and hearts as we try to navigate life with some sense of personal identity coupled with a life submitted to our Master.
Much of the time, I found myself despising Elizabeth Barrett Browning as I read, despite the fact that Wilson was devoted to her. One thing that pulled me on through page after page was my desire to see what Wilson would do after Browning died. While I don’t wish to give away the ending, I will say that I was not emotionally satisfied with it. I wanted more triumph, more personal accomplishment for Wilson than the author gave.
The afterward of the book explains how much of the book is based on fact and how much is purely fictional. This was helpful for me to accept the ending. The author, Margaret Forster, has also written a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, so I felt the book was likely more authentic as a result.
As I think about the parallels I saw between the maid’s life of service to her mistress and my life of service to Christ, I see my own flaws. I think I am sometimes pulled through life by my desires to have more triumph and personal accomplishment, too. So while nothing about the author or this book is specifically Christian, I came away feeling a need to submit more to Christ–to recognize that my identity is truly in Him. Our rewards on not often given in this life, and it is good to be reminded of that. This is the Scripture passage that came to my mind when considering these thoughts:
Colossians 3:2-4 (English Standard Version)
2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
I recommend Lady’s Maid purely for its good writing and interesting story. But it is also worth reading to spur on thoughts about your own life. For me, my relationship with Christ came to mind. For someone else, it might be a relationship with an employer or some other authority. Don’t get me wrong, the parallels are not complete. For one thing, Christ will never disappoint me as Mrs. Browning was capable of disappointing Wilson. But I always find fiction more worthy of my time when it opens up my minds to think about my own situation, and to hopefully, improve it.