48 pages 1 hour read

Marie Benedict

Carnegie's Maid

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Carnegie’s Maid (2018) is the second novel by author Marie Benedict. Before becoming an author, Benedict was an attorney for a decade but then switched her focus to writing historical fiction featuring strong female protagonists, most of whom are real historical figures whose stories are not well known. Her other works include The Other Einstein (2017), The Only Woman in the Room (2019), Lady Clementine (2020), The Mystery of Mrs. Christie (2021), Her Hidden Genius (2022), and The Mitford Affair (2023).

When first published, Carnegie’s Maid became a USA Today bestseller. Benedict based the novel on her own Irish family’s immigration saga during the 19th century. She recalls hearing stories from grandmothers and great-aunts about female ancestors who worked as servants in the houses of rich American families. Their struggles and hardships in carving out a life in a new country are echoed in the experiences of Benedict’s protagonist, Clara Kelley. Carnegie’s Maid falls into the categories of biographical historical fiction and literary fiction.

This study guide and all its page citations are based on the Kindle edition of the novel.

Plot Summary

Carnegie’s Maid depicts the relationship between business tycoon Andrew Carnegie and his mother’s personal maid, Clara Kelley. The story is principally set in the Pittsburgh area and covers the time period from 1863 through 1900, but the majority of the novel’s events transpire between Clara’s arrival at the Carnegie mansion in 1863 and her departure in 1867. Aside from the Prologue, which is told from Andrew Carnegie’s point of view using third-person narration, the rest of the novel is told from Clara’s perspective in first-person narration. As the lives of the rich industrialist and the impoverished lady’s maid intertwine, Carnegie’s Maid explores the themes of The Class System, Roles and Identities, and The Purpose of Wealth.

The story opens with Andrew Carnegie in 1868 as he takes stock of his life. He has recently lost someone important to him. Clara Kelley’s disappearance has forced him to consider the ways that his self-serving, greedy behavior may have driven her away. Now at a crossroads, Andrew resolves to change his focus from amassing wealth to using that wealth for the benefit of the working class. In doing this, he hopes to atone for past wrongs and make Clara proud of him.

After this introduction, the novel shifts back in time to Clara’s point of view as she crosses the Atlantic in the cargo hold of a ship in 1863. As a poor immigrant, her experience contrasts sharply with the lifestyle enjoyed by America’s capitalist upper class. Clara is desperate to find employment to save her family back home. While they escaped the potato famine that killed so many other Irish tenant farmers, their landlord is threatening to revoke their tenancy. Clara’s parents and two sisters need money badly, and she intends to earn enough to keep them from starvation.

Through a case of mistaken identity, Clara is hired as the lady’s maid for the mother of Andrew Carnegie, who is already a rich investor and lives in a luxurious mansion on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. His mother has a forceful personality and shrewdly advises her son in his business dealings. Mrs. Carnegie is a demanding mistress to her servants, but she is newly rich and uncertain of the proper behavior, dress, and manners of an upper-class lady. Clara’s namesake, who died during the crossing, was an experienced lady’s maid who worked in some of the finest houses in Europe. Thus, Mrs. Carnegie relies on her maid to steer her course in high society. Unfortunately, Clara knows nothing about the role of a lady’s maid and must quickly acquire that expertise or be exposed as a fraud. While searching the mansion’s library for books on etiquette, she crosses paths with Andrew, who kindly offers her the use of the room. Having come from poverty himself, he doesn’t put on airs, even though his mother attempts to do so for the sake of her upper-class social circle.

Clara and Andrew soon discover that they are kindred spirits and share many lively discussions about literature. As Clara witnesses the dire condition of the working class in Pittsburgh, she comes to realize that she must gain more knowledge of business to help her family rise from poverty. She makes an exhaustive study of the Carnegie business holdings with the support and encouragement of Andrew. Eventually, Clara’s astute problem-solving skills help him launch two new ventures, and he rewards her with stock certificates in these companies. Clara then becomes financially independent enough to bring the rest of her family to America.

Sadly, the repressive class system of Gilded Age America intervenes to break up the budding romance between Clara and Andrew. Clara discovers Andrew’s exploitation of poor immigrants for his own financial gain, and the two have an argument over the issue. At the same time, Mrs. Carnegie learns Clara’s true identity. Jealous of her maid’s influence over her son, she threatens to expose Clara if she doesn’t sever her ties with Andrew forever. Clara decides to leave rather than risk disillusioning Andrew with her false persona. He never learns that she was forced out of his home and assumes it was his avarice that drove her away. Although he searches for years, he never finds her. Despite this fact, Andrew is inspired by Clara’s idealism and resolves to devote the rest of his life to charity. The novel ends in 1900 with Clara attending the official opening of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.