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Review: Carnegie’s Maid, by Marie Benedict
Sourcebooks, 2018. 281 pp. $26

Why did Andrew Carnegie, arguably the most cutthroat robber baron ever — which is saying something — turn philanthropist? That’s the question Benedict tries to answer in this engaging, if half-fulfilled, novel. Her catalyst is Clara Kelley, who leaves Galway for New York in November 1863, on a mission that feels desperate. Her once-prosperous farm family faces poverty, if not destitution, because of her father’s political activity. Clara, healthy, vigorous, and intelligent, is the daughter chosen to cross the Atlantic, find gainful employment, and send money home.

Well versed in horror stories about conmen who fleece new immigrants, Clara makes an instinctive decision on arrival. A man in livery asks her whether she’s Clara Kelley, to which she naturally says yes. But it’s quickly apparent that she’s not the young woman he’s expecting. Nevertheless, she plays the part to the hilt—-who’s fleecing whom?–and he helps her into his carriage, which will bring them to Pittsburgh. During the ride, Clara gleans that she’s to be ladies’ maid to a Mrs. Carnegie, a notion that both excites and terrifies her, because she has no idea what a lady’s maid does or who her new employer is, aside from having a wealthy son. I like this part of the novel best, for Clara must suss out what people want to hear before they even ask, an exercise fraught with tension and, sometimes, humor.

Andrew Carnegie’s birthplace, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland (courtesy user: kilnburn via Wikimedia Commons)

But our heroine has two aces up her puffy sleeves. First, her betters talk about her as though she weren’t there — a servant’s lot — and from the information gained, she infers ways to keep one step ahead of exposure. Secondly, Clara senses that Mrs. Carnegie asks so many questions about how her former employers dressed, took tea, or buffed their nails not to uncover her maid’s falsehoods, but because she’s unsure of herself. She has money, of course, and a son who’s like a god to her, but no name or social standing, and that scares her. She needs to know How Things Are Done, without giving herself away. In other words, she’s more like her maid than she knows.

Clara can’t ever breathe a syllable of her discovery, yet the knowledge gives her courage and the means with which to flatter. And when she has the rare luxury to breathe, she’s free to observe that her made-of-iron mistress manufactures and sells that product, and her escritoire holds business papers instead of invitations or calling cards. That opens a world for Clara — a woman can enter business and compete with men — a feminist touch I like, and which Benedict wisely refrains from overplaying.

Despite such an ingenious premise and engaging protagonist, though, several obstacles hold the story back. First is Pointless Prologue No. 1728, in which Andrew pens an unsent letter to Clara bemoaning her departure, expressing his love, and promising to devote his fortune to charitable causes. A version of this letter apparently exists, which prompts the central historical question — why did he write it? — but sabotages the plot. Narrative questions do remain, but I think they pale beside the larger issues, not least whose story this is, the male industrialist’s or that of the fictive woman who influences him. I find Clara’s predicament compelling enough at the outset without a Famous Person waiting in the wings.

Also, rather than evoke Clara’s conflicts through physical detail, such as memories of her home and family, she asks rhetorical questions of herself, often the same ones. So many authors settle for that, and some readers might say that’s the difference between commercial and literary fiction. I disagree. A confident storyteller in any genre realizes that a three-sentence digression that offers a window on inner life connects with the reader and creates tension. It’s also subtler and more effective than three rhetorical questions in a row.

Carnegie’s Maid does draw some lovely parallels. Carnegie and Clara realize that they’re both immigrants, yet the distance between them is enormous. I wish Clara had gone a little further, recognizing that her lie is no worse than those he tells in his business, and that unlike him, she hasn’t hurt anybody. Her pretense, in fact, is precisely the sort of boldness that can decide success or failure, especially for a poor immigrant, and it’s certainly what has built the Carnegie empire. She can never say so, but I wanted her to think it.

Benedict also juxtaposes Clara’s family situation with that of Mr. Ford, the household chef and former slave, and her only ally among the servants. I like this very much, but again, I would have liked it even better had Clara imagined slavery or how her friend must have suffered. Likewise, I would have welcomed a passage or two in which she wonders what she would do if she had riches, or what it might feel like to be sexually touched, an issue that arises because of Andrew’s attraction for her. We’re told only that no one in Galway wanted to marry her, but surely, she felt some sexual pull, sometime. I’d have expected her to measure that fantasy against Andrew’s physical reality and to struggle with that.

Consequently, Carnegie’s Maid feels restrained, in a way, because of risks not taken. But I still like this novel, which has much to recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.