Set in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Carnegie’s Maid tells the story of a lowly woman (Clara) of the 19th century that rose in power and prestige through determination, adaptation to the situation to take advantage of an opportunity that suddenly presented itself, and plain old hard work. There is also the element of subterfuge and manipulation of the newly minted Carnegie family who like Clara came to America as immigrants and worked their way up the ladder of corporate and social success.
Clara’s story is the tale of a impovished Irish daughter who must find her way in the world of stratified American class society that clings to the belief that a daughter’s role is in the home as a helpmate to her husband, to bear and raise the children, and in the event she is not married, to work in the few available fields open to women at the time, teaching and domestic service primarily. Social classes exist in a rigid non-permeable state as the Carnegies found out when in New York for the season they were rejected by the upper tens as the set that was founded by the Dutch Knickerbockers were known.
Clara too learns that jumping hoops into another class is nearly impossible when Mrs. Carnegie, the mother of Andrew and Tom Carnegie, confronts Clara about her past, and the deception of that Clara has perpetrated to obtain and keep the position as Mrs. Carnegie’s lady maid, a position that Clara uses to befriend the elder son, Andrew and learn the family business. Clara’s focus is her family back in Ireland. She must work so that she can send part of her earnings back to Ireland. To do so, she must maintain the deception that she was a former lady’s maid with references who has come to America to find employment when in reality, Clara’s experiences in the society at the time if known would barely allowed her to be employed as a scullery maid. Ladies maids are a step above most of the domestic staff in America, equal to or slightly junior to tutors and governesses, and not answerable to cooks, butlers or the housekeeper and certainly would not have anything to do with a lowly scullery maid.
Clara’s family has lost their farming tenancy in rural Galway because of the father’s leadership and involvement in the Fenian home rule movement in Ireland and is forced to move in with one of Clara’s aunt in the city where life is eked out, forced to subsist on the irregular work that is not enough to feed the family. Clara becomes the breadwinner to her family back in Ireland as well as to another part of her family that lives in the grey smokestack soot-encased Pittsburg factory suburb, Slab Town. Clara’s friendship (and burgeoning hidden romance) with Andrew Carnegie, the rising industrialist, later philanthropist, gives her entry into the privileged male iron and steel industries as well as the worlds of telegraphs and railroads. Ultimately, it pays off for Clara who after her loss of her job as a ladies maid has the financial wherewithal (thanks in large part to her work with Andrew Carnegie) to train to become a nurse and further her family’s survival.
Marie Benedict writes a compelling story that is based on real events, real people. Carnegie’s Maid is not as good as Benedict’s The Personal Librarian. Carnegie’s Maid ends somewhat abruptly, about as fast as Clara’s loss of her position as a ladies maid and removal from the household. The epilogue reveals that Clara has landed on her feet and is able to fend for herself (with the help of the substantial earnings and stocks from her side work with Andrew Carnegie) and become a nurse. What is missing (and is so unlike The Personal Librarian) is what then happened to her family, who is Clara’s reason for coming to America. Do they survive? Do they emigrate to America? What are they doing? What happened to her relatives in Slab Town?
Part of the problem is the choice of the author to tell the story from Clara’s perspective. This limits the author to what Clara knows, preventing the development of the father’s involvement in the Fenian movement and his and his family’s ultimate ruination while Clara is in service to Mrs. Carnegie. Still, (and while it may or may not have been true in real life), given the stress that Benedict places on Clara as the family breadwinner, it is plausible that a fictionalized Clara learned this information years later and through the epilogue presented it to the reader.
One other area was Mrs. Carnegie’s investigation into Clara’s past. Servants were seen, not heard, but heard, saw, and knew much more than their employers ever thought they did. How did Clara not realize the change in her mistress? Or more plausibly, did she, and why was this not developed?