I’m not a sucker for history, but there are three (and only three) time periods which continue to seriously fascinate me: Ancient Egypt, Victorian England and World War II.
Warming her Pearls (probably) takes place in Victorian or Edwardian England and focuses on the relationship between a lady and a maid. This is such a huge fascination of mine – and any one who is a lover of Downton Abbey probably feels the same; the relationships between Lords and Ladies and their servants is so intricate and interesting I just want to devour as many books as I can on the subject.
I think what struck me most about Duffy’s poem is how alive the characters of the mistress and the servant are. It’s a six verse poem and I’ve read 500-page novels without as much characterisation as I see here.
I can feel the servant’s frustration at her life, her status, her mistress. It’s an unspoken and slightly murderous hatred and I love it. And what of the mistress? Does she ask her servant to wear her pearls out of sadism or is she literally so wrapped up in her own sense of entitlement she can’t even percieve her servant in the way she perceieves the tall men she waltzes with?
I love this kinda stuff. And I love this poem.
Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,
resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.
She’s beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.
I dust her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.
Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head…. Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way
she always does…. And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.
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