‘Warming Her Pearls’: Status, Possession and Lust

It is the status of the mistress that separates her from the maid, and acts as a permanent barrier between the two characters. There is no social mobility in the poem, as demonstrated by the description of the pearls as a ‘rope’ (l. 8),[1] symbolising the relationship between master and slave, as one is bound to serve the other. Hallett notes that the symbol of the pearls allows ‘eroticism [to intersect] with ideas of class’[2] as they represent an unattainable, desirable object, much like the mistress to the maid. The maid is unable to break free from her low status, and so cannot enter into a romantic relationship with her mistress.

Duffy’s uses the titular image of the pearls to discuss the idea of possession. The maid is firstly jealous that her mistress dances with ‘tall men’ (l. 7), which heightens her obsession for her mistress, as the image presented here shows how men disrupt, dominate and interfere with female relationships. To combat this, the maid infuses the pearls with her ‘persistent scent’ (l. 11), like an animal marking her territory. The maid tries to use the pearls to claim the mistress as her own, demonstrating her possessive nature.

The maid’s lust remains unchanged throughout the poem and is exacerbated by the absence of the pearls. Duffy’s maid is part of an unchanged cycle, as she warms her mistress’ pearls every day and then gives them up to her. Her lust for her mistress is heightened by the loss of the pearls, as she notes that she feels ‘their absence and I burn’ (l. 24). The burning sensation demonstrates the strength of the maids’ desire for her mistress. Nobody dies in this poem, unlike in the Browning poems I wrote about over the last two weeks. Does this say that the maids’ lust perhaps is not as strong as Porphyria’s lovers’? Is her possessive nature weaker than that of the Duke? Perhaps it is purer, as it does not manifest in any murderous intent. Perhaps it is purer because it is the love of a woman, not a man? Maybe there is no murder because the social status of the maid remains unchanged, unlike Porphyria and the Duchess. Some things to think about…

Thanks for reading!

[1] Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Warming Her Pearls’, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy, 6th edn (London: Norton, 2018), pp. 2117-2118.

[2] N. Hallett, ‘Did Mrs. Danvers Warm Rebecca’s Pearls? Significant Exchanges and the Extension of Lesbian Space and Time in Literature’, Feminist Review, 74 (2003), pp. 35-49, 39.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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