In Betsy and Catherine: An Uncommon Friendship, author Helen Gailey writes a story of devotion between two very different women: Catherine, a member of the aristocracy and her servant, Betsy. It’s Betsy who frames the narrative, reading her friend Catherine’s journal aloud; following a series of traumatic events, Catherine no longer remembers her own identity.
Pieces of the past gradually fall into place, beginning in 18th century England, when Lady Catherine Kensington and Betsy Bramley are six years old and their friendship blossoms. Because Catherine’s family owns a grand manor estate and Betsy’s family serves them, their parents tell the girls to simply smile at each other in passing. Anything more would be quite inappropriate. These haughty instructions prove fruitless, however, because the girls become inseparable; Catherine, rambunctious and curious despite her genteel upbringing, and Betsy, with her serene yet level-headed sensibility, perfectly complement each other.
As they mature, Betsy is appointed Catherine’s lady’s maid and their bond only deepens. Catherine then meets, and happily marries, Lord Edward Banister. Later, bored while her husband is abroad on business, she convinces Betsy to venture with her — incognito — to London “to see the way the other half lives.” After that ill-conceived and adventuresome decision, neither of their lives will ever be the same.
A WORLD IN WHICH APPEARANCES ARE HELD ABOVE TRUTH
A shopkeeper viciously accuses the women of stealing a bolt of cloth, and Catherine and Betsy are arrested. They profess their innocence and give the authorities their names, but no one believes the truth. They are sentenced to prison in the Australian colonies, board a ship, and begin a journey fraught with violence, illness and worse hardship than they could have even imagined.
Catherine’s whim that one day in London unleashes a cascade of consequences for the duo that not only changes their lives, but challenges everything they believe in and have accepted as the way of the world. It calls up questions about class and privilege; from the very first page, the discrepancy between Catherine and Betsy is clear as a bell. “You must stay away from the servants’ children,” the baron orders, “They are not of our class.” Betsy is granted an education — but only for Catherine’s benefit.
Betsy truly is a noble and selfless person, but how much of that is engrained in her due to her low social standing? “I cannot remember a moment when I didn’t put Catherine first in all that we did,” Betsy muses affectionately, but the reader can’t miss the darker message hiding in such duty-bound self-sacrifice. They suffer their hardships because the “lady” forgoes all semblance of her outward high station; if Catherine had been dressed as her noble self that day in the shop, nothing would have harmed her, proving the unfortunate influence of arbitrary labels and appearances.
HOPE AND LOVE CONQUER ADVERSITY
The juxtapositions in the novel are masterfully written; when Betsy reads Catherine’s journal we hear of moldy bread and starvation, but when she puts it down she dines on tea and cakes. Additionally, the men around them tend toward brutality, while the two friends adopt an orphaned boy and care for him along the journey as though he were their own son.
Hope becomes a prevalent theme throughout, a quiet virtue that guides the women through uncertain and nearly unbearable reality. The novel has another quiet power underpinning all these circumstantial events and pretenses; none of the struggles makes a dent in the profound love and friendship the two women feel for each other.
In the end, Betsy and Catherine is a tale of loyalty and love as much as it’s a tale of the injustices and harrowing realities of life in the 18th century. As Betsy earnestly proclaims, “We will get by, Catherine. As long as we are together, as long as we have each other.”
Betsy and Catherine is available for purchase. For more information about the book, check out our interview with the author here.