Clara Kelley is not who they think she is. She’s not the experienced Irish maid who was hired to work in one of Pittsburgh’s grandest households. She’s a poor farmer’s daughter with nowhere to go and nothing in her pockets. But the other Clara Kelley has vanished, and pretending to be her just might get Clara some money to send back home.
If she can keep up the ruse, that is. Serving as a lady’s maid in the household of Andrew Carnegie requires skills she doesn’t have, answering to an icy mistress who rules her sons and her domain with an iron fist. What Clara does have is a resolve as strong as the steel Pittsburgh is becoming famous for, coupled with an uncanny understanding of business, and Andrew begins to rely on her. But Clara can’t let her guard down, not even when Andrew becomes something more than an employer. Revealing her past might ruin her future—and her family’s. Could Clara have spurred Andrew Carnegie’s transformation from ruthless industrialist into one the world’s first true philanthropists?
Marie Benedict has penned several novels that includes The Other Einstein and under the pen name Heather Terrell has written The Chrysalis, The Map Thief, and Brigid of Kildare. A former lawyer, Benedict is a graduate of Boston College and the Boston University School of Law, and lives in Pittsburgh with her family. In this remarkably fascinating and haunting historical novel Benedict has created a cadre of vulnerable and thought provoking characters that are captivating, appealing, and provocative.
Carnegie’s Maid seeks to describe the amazing turnaround by Andrew Carnegie from steel magnate to philanthropist. He was the oldest son of Scottish immigrants who would become one of the richest and most prolific philanthropist in American history. Clara Kelley is from Galway, Ireland. In 1863, she immigrates to America to help earn money for her family. Upon her arrival in Philadelphia, she assumes the identity of another Clara Kelley.
“They began talking about me as if I wasn’t there. Talking about the other Clara Kelley, in truth, not really me. I listened hard, absorbing the history of the other Clara Kelley . . . slated for a life as the wife of a storekeeper until the family’s fortune turned. Without a dowry, a life as a lady’s maid became Clara’s life instead, and as the positions evaporated in post-famine Ireland, she sailed for fresh opportunities in America. This was the Clara Kelley, I was meant to be . . . I was the only one who knew the real Clara never finished the journey across the Atlantic.”
The reader is immediately drawn into Clara’s life and her resolve to put her family’s needs over her own desires. Her loneliness and isolation in the Carnegie’s home is real and profound. The moments of kindness from her only friend in the house—the butler, Mr. Ford—are poignant and show Clara’s depth of compassion for others.
“The divide between lady’s maid and the rest of the staff was a chasm . . . Only Mr. Ford acknowledged me with a grin. Like me he seemed to exist in a world separate from the two realms . . . Was it because of his color or his station? I did not know, but I was grateful for his small kindnesses in a domain where I was either ignored or obliquely derided . . .”
Her wisdom is revealed through silent observation of Mrs. Carnegie’s rough and discolored hands (obtained through decades of her own hard work). Clara begins to realize that her mistress, although a member of high society is also trying to fit into a foreign culture. Clara’s grit and determination in the face of societal inequalities and prejudices is palpable and must be applauded.
Although the role of Clara Kelley in Andrew Carnegie’s life is fictional, it does make a charmingly romantic story. Imagining a close relationship between Andrew and Clara gives the reader a glimpse into the challenges of the Industrial Age in America, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment that limited the options of the working class and what might have inspired Andrew Carnegie to devote so much of his fortune to helping them.
Interesting and well written, Carnegies’ Maid is a love story like no other. Beautifully written and engaging, Marie Benedict has delivered a charming and believable story line. Clara Kelley took an interest in Carnegie’s business dealings, and he listened closely to her ideas and opinions. It’s fun to think that with a hidden past and a fear of being exposed Clara might have had a hand in changing history.
Michael Thomas Barry is the author of seven nonfiction books that includes Literary Legends of the British Isles and America’s Literary Legends.