'Carnegie's Maid' by Marie Benedict: A Book Review
I received an advance reader copy of 'Carnegie's Maid' from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Pam Jenoff’s quote on the front of Carnegie’s Maid says it all: “Downton Abbey fans should flock to this charming tale.” I’m a Downton Abbey fan, and I loved this book. Like pretty much every book here on Picking Books, Carnegie’s Maid contains a wealth of accurate historical information. And within its pages you get a good sense of who Andrew Carnegie was and a loose outline of his rise to prominence. Benedict also touches on the struggles Irish people continued to face after the famine in 1840 and the difficulties immigrants faced both on their way to America and once they got here. What I love most about Carnegie’s Maid, however, is how Benedict delves into Pittsburgh’s rich cultural history.
I have a love-hate relationship with Pittsburgh. On its surface Pittsburgh is everything you expect a rustbelt city to be, but when you live here and take advantage of everything that Pittsburgh offers, you find that Pittsburgh has a wealth of cultural, philanthropic, and educational resources comparable to that of other more cosmopolitan U.S. cities. And Pittsburgh owes at least a little credit for its rich cultural life today to Andrew Carnegie.
Benedict highlights this point in her author’s note: “The idea [for Carnegie’s Maid] began with my own family over a hundred years ago, when my Irish immigrant ancestors, deprived of schooling and opportunities, used the first Carnegie library in Pittsburgh to educate themselves and their families.”
So, what prompted Andrew Carnegie to leave a legacy of 1,689 libraries across the country? His initial desire to help people like Benedict’s ancestors was outlined in a memo to himself in 1868, which Benedict includes in the book. The memo is peculiar because Andrew Carnegie wasn’t exactly a squishy cuddle bug. In fact, the memo is so out of character that, per Benedict, historians dispute the catalyst for the memo. As Benedict explains, some historians speculate that a relationship could have prompted him to write the memo. Enter Clara Kelly.
Benedict’s protagonist, Clara Kelly, immigrates from Ireland to America in 1863 because she needs to earn money for her family. Her father, a tenant farmer, is losing land because of his political leanings. He aligned with the Fenians a few years earlier.
Yeah I had never heard of them either. Benedict explains that the Fenian movement was “an Irish-led movement that maintained Ireland should be its own state, that farmers should have fair rent and fixity of tenure, and that all people should have rights and the ability to better themselves, it had arisen from the near nonexistent assistance offered by English leaders to the sufferers of the Irish famine.” Basically, the Fenians wanted to be free from British rule, and, in the book, Clara’s father’s Anglo-Irish land owners don’t agree with his views and retaliate by taking land away from him.
Consequently, Clara immigrates to America in hopes of securing a job that pays enough money for her and her family. With a small lie and a bit of luck she ends up as Mrs. Margaret Carnegie’s lady’s maid. This is how she meets Andrew Carnegie.
Mr. Carnegie, as Clara refers to him for most of the book, lives with his mother, Margaret, and his brother, Tom, in Homewood. As Clara serves Mrs. Carnegie, she struggles to keep a secret and fend off polite advances from Mr. Carnegie. Her situation isn’t helped by Mrs. Carnegie’s demeanor. She is mean and insecure but for most of the book they make things work.
As Clara and Andrew’s fondness for one another grows, she teaches him about the plight of the poor, and he teaches her about business. Clara challenges Mr. Carnegie, “'I pose the question as a theoretical, Mr. Carnegie, for the average man. Not for me. How would the average person—man or woman—who wasn’t able to secure free passage into one of the rare lending libraries like Colonel Anderson’s that give access to the common man rise above his station? You’ve said that education—and research—were key to your success.'”
She also gathers information from Mr. Carnegie about money and business: “'What do you mean by investing, Mr. Carnegie? Do you mean handing over money to a company founder? Like a loan?' We had developed an open dialogue in our park afternoons, where Mr. Carnegie tolerated, even encouraged, my many questions about the business world.” It’s these talks that make Mr. Carnegie fall for Clara, and it is because of their romance that Carnegie’s Maid, while a well-researched work of historical fiction, tiptoes into chick lit territory. In one instance, Benedict does more than tiptoe:
This exquisite formal gown, appropriate for a ball or an evening at the Academy of Music, must have been accidentally delivered to my room. Although how a dressmaker’s delivery boy could have made such an obvious and egregious error was unfathomable. Especially when he asked for me specifically. I began to repack the box and take it down to the front desk when I noticed a small card within the folds of the gown. No name appeared on the envelope, and it was not sealed, so I slid out the note. For Clara—To help me carve out a different path. Forgive me. Please meet me in the lobby at seven o’clock for an evening at the Academy of Music. Andrew. Did I dare accept? Did I dare to hope? Or had I already indulged my girlish, innocent fantasies for long enough?
If a rich guy gives a poor girl a dress and takes her out on the town, you’re reading chick lit. There is absolutely nothing wrong with chick lit, but it’s also not for everyone and there is enough of this kind of prose in Carnegie’s Maid to irritate click lit haters. Benedict, however, packed enough historical tidbits in this book that even the most macho readers can forgive the occasional mushiness.
Over the course of the book, I learned that Andrew Carnegie dabbled in what we know today as insider trading. Clara explains that Mr. Carnegie had personal policy to “invest not just in companies but in a group of trusted people; only invest in companies he’d examined himself; and invest in companies that deliver goods and services for which the demand was growing. The most important factor in his decision-making, however, was the requirement that he had insider knowledge about the company and its dealings.” But don’t worry, insider trading wasn’t illegal back then. Clara continues, “This notion seemed illegal to me, but when I asked a gentle question about its propriety, Mr. Carnegie assured me of its legality, although neither one of us spoke of its morality.”
While reading, I also learned about Rebecca Street where Clara’s mother’s second cousin Patrick lived with his family. She visits them frequently and realizes how lucky she is to be employed by the Carnegies. Rebecca Street was a slum. Andrew Carnegie also lived there when his family immigrated from Scotland, but his first Pittsburgh home no longer exists. According to The New York Times, Heinz Field stands in its place.
Overall, the premise of Carnegie’s Maid is valid, although I find Benedict’s theory unlikely. In this armchair historian’s completely amateur opinion, it’s more likely a result of his impoverished childhood, his experiences becoming a self-made man, and his disdain for charities. In The Gospel of Wealth, Carnegie wrote, “Of every thousand dollars spent in so called charity to-day, it is probable that $950 is unwisely spent; so spent, indeed as to produce the very evils which it proposes to mitigate or cure.”
By creating his own libraries and institutions Carnegie could provide charity in the way he believed was right: “In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to use the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all.” Historical guesswork aside, Carnegie's Maid is a delightful book. And even though I knew that Carnegie never married a maid and consequently assumed that he would never end up with Clara, I rooted for them the whole time!
Finally, here are links to some of Pittsburgh’s best cultural organizations and attractions, many of them still bearing the names of Carnegie and his associates.
The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
City of Asylum
Frick Art & Historical Center
Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden
Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh including the Carnegie Science Center, Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and The Andy Warhol Museum
Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
Mystery Lover’s Bookshop
Ok Pittsburghers, what are your favorite places to visit in and around Pittsburgh?
- Stamberg, "How Andrew Carnegie Turned His Fortune Into A Library Legacy."
- Laskin, "Where a Tycoon Made It Just to Give It Away."
- Carnegie,"The Gospel of Wealth"
By Marie Benedict
Sourcebooks Landmark. 288 pp.