Here is a different kind of book for you. I usually review fun things for your YA-interested littles to read, but I have to tell you about this book.
If you are looking for a supplement to a Victorian-era study, this novel will make a great read-aloud for your homeschool. It is the tale of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life, seen through the eyes of her lady’s maid, Wilson. Wilson goes to work for Browning when Wilson herself is barely 20 and Browning is near 40. Browning is an invalid, still living in her father’s house with little contact with the outside world. Already she is a renowned poet, but she gets all her inspiration from books, letters, and newspapers and what goes on in her own head. She insists from Wilson’s initial time with her that they be friends, but Wilson is not so gullible as to feel friendship toward her mistress. What she ends up feeling is a kind of worship that ties her to Browning more strongly than friendship ever could. It is Wilson who aids her mistress in eloping with Robert Browning and Wilson who flees to Italy with the new couple. Wilson cares for Browning when her illness overtakes her and is there for the birth of the Brownings’ son. But Wilson is a human being with dreams of her own and eventually she, too, marries. When she needs help from the Brownings, she finds herself suddenly and almost entirely cast aside, but her feelings for her mistress refuse to change and she is there right up to Mrs. Browning’s end. The author weaves fact and fiction together so seamlessly that by the last page you will be convinced you have known Wilson and everything about her life. And it will be up to you to decide if Mrs. Browning deserved her. Or even if you liked Mrs. Browning. She was a mite selfish. But that may have just been a class thing.
This novel, written eloquently by Margaret Forster, is done in much the same language and tone as a contemporary novel would have been done in Barrett’s time. It is interspersed with letters from Wilson to various recipients and gives the reader and idea of the type of language and grammar that were used in that era. It is a genius look at Victorian life–class disparity, politics, marriage, the inner workings of both Upstairs and Downstairs. It will give you and your children a chance to discuss human nature. Wilson and Mrs. Browning are two very different people, and they open each other up in ways they might not otherwise have been afforded. Wilson, especially, grows in unexpected ways. She also views the relationship between her and her mistress quite differently than Browning does. It is interesting to think about why being born in the working class allowed Wilson more room to grow, both intellectually and emotionally.
Besides that, the book provides a chance to introduce the poetry of both Brownings as well as that of their friends, such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The book doesn’t contain much poetry itself, being Wilson’s story, but reading some poems alongside it will help your littles understand just who the Brownings were and why they are still famous today. Forster has also written a nonfiction biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning that could make a good companion read.
Even if you’re not studying the Victorian Age or poetry, this is a good book to pick up and have on hand, Mama. I think you would enjoy it as much as I did. It is definitely thought-provoking and a little heartbreaking and will have you questioning the choices people make and how even though we have to live with them, it’s never too late to choose a different path.
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