In 1844, Lily Wilson becomes lady’s maid to Elizabeth Barrett, invalid daughter of a wealthy, overbearing London merchant. Elizabeth became a recluse, corresponding and eventually meeting the poet Robert Browning. Because her father disapproved of his children marrying, Elizabeth eloped with Robert to Italy.
The story is half about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and half about Lily. I found the details of EBB’s life to be much more interesting than that of Wilson’s, and I wish there was more about her in this novel. I got the feeling that Wilson never really had a life of her own—everything she did was connected in some way with her mistress. However, I’d like to think that this was characteristic of the period—good servants didn’t really have lives of their own. Nonetheless, Wilson seemed to get herself into a lot of romantic entanglements that made me wonder what the point of it was. The writing style of the book is very dense, and it took me a long time to get through—much longer than it normally takes me to read a 550-page book. I also thought that about 200 pages could have been cut from the novel—it just seemed to drag on a bit.
Nevertheless, there were a couple of things I enjoyed about this book, not the least of which was the setting—Victorian England and Italy never fail to interest me. I also liked the author’s message about choice—Wilson could have learned a thing or two from her mistress.