You really can’t judge a book by its cover.
From the outside, “Carnegie’s Maid” by Marie Benedict seemed like a simple historical fiction romance between one of America’s most famous business tycoons and his servant. I expected an American Cinderella story set in the 19th century drama, an unrealistic ending and heaps of melodrama to keep me easily occupied during the pandemic, but instead the slim volume packed a thoughtful punch.
Set during the Civil War, “Carnegie’s Maid” stars lower-class, but educated, Irish immigrant Clara Kelley on her journey to America. After a case of mistaken identity, she ends up in the employ of the nouveau riche Carnegie family as a maid servant to the mother of soon to be famous Andrew Carnegie. Clara has no formal training in serving high class ladies during the period, but she learns quickly and soon becomes a silent observer in the room for important business conversations while the family was first building its steel empire in Pittsburgh.
As Clara continues to serve in the house, she eventually becomes close friends with the young Andrew Carnegie and learns the ins and outs of the business world he and his family are trying to break into. The interplay between the servants and the Carnegie family and their guests will appeal to fans of the famous television series “Downtown Abbey,” both because of the historical details and the interesting cast of characters that occupy all social stations.
I won’t spoil the details of the story because this is revealed in the first chapter, but the idea is that the sequence of events in this book are what inspired Carnegie to eventually become a prominent philanthropist by placing libraries open to anyone throughout the country. We even have one of the historic buildings here in Boise, located on Washington Street.
Benedict has written four novels, all of which focus on the stories of lost women of history. This includes “The Other Einstein,” about famous inventor Albert Einstein’s wife, and “The Only Woman in the Room,” which tells the fictionalized story of Austrian-American actress Hedy Lamarr. “Carnegie’s Maid” follows this same pattern. The difference in this book is that Clara Kelley is not a real woman and the events of this story are all part of Benedict’s imagination of what possibly could have happened to steer Carnegie in a new direction.
Historical fiction is a wildly popular genre, but I am often struck by how sometimes these stories gloss over some of the dark parts of their setting or leave those ethical questions off to the side while the main story plays out. To my surprise, “Carnegie’s Maid” is not like that at all. This book directly addresses America’s long history of mistreating newly arrived immigrants, like the Irish during the mid-1800s, and the myth that persists today of anyone being able to work their way out of poverty and into the upper echelon of society.
Money is not the only issue addressed in this story. Clara is forced to hide her devout Catholic faith for fear of discrimination, and even though she has a strong aptitude for business, there is very little she can do to improve her station as an unmarried woman without a man to do things on her behalf. One of the other characters in the story is an escaped slave who works in the Carnegie’s kitchen who mourns for his family lost on his run from the south while the Carnegie’s raise toasts to the Union Army in the next room.
As Clara quickly learns that as she is trying to fake it ‘til she makes it as a high class servant, the Carnegies are also very new to the demands of high rolling Americans during the period. The interplay between two immigrants trying to put up a front makes for great dramatic irony, and it points out one of the fundamental flaws of the American story that we welcome all immigrants equally. Although the Carnegies were dirt poor Scottish immigrants themselves, Mrs. Carnegie still looks down on Clara due to her lack of money.
“Carnegie’s Maid” is a relatively short, fast-paced story you can easily blow through in a few days, but it asks a lot of essential questions about the foundation of America and how we treat those who come here looking for new opportunities. Where would we be if we accepted all of the contributions new immigrants are able to make?