How does class enter this poem, and how does it affect this relationship?
Class is inseparable from the relationship in this poem. The speaker works, does as she is bidden, warming the pearls and brushing her mistress's hair. The mistress, on the other hand, fans herself to keep cool. The relationship these women have with the string of pearls allows them to have physical contact they could not have otherwise; it allows for a transfer of heat between their bodies. Though it bridges the distance, the necklace also measures it; the ownership of the pearls also parallels the relationship between the speaker and her mistress. Though the speaker is in close physical contact with the pearls, the necklace could never be hers.
The two characters are physically connected by the string of pearls. The pearls carry sexual power, but they also embody the strictness of the social hierarchy.
How does this poem treat desire?
In “Warming Her Pearls,” the line between desire and being desired is permeable. The physical intimacy built into the job of being a maid also blurs the line between sexual and nonsexual contact. The speaker seems to have trouble distinguishing between intimacy forced by her position and intimacy induced by desire. In some moments she seems to seize erotic control, for instance when she dusts her mistress’s shoulders with a rabbit foot. These moments, however, are always undercut by her social class, by the impossibility of this relationship. The reader, on the behalf of the speaker, is forced to ask how the speaker would react if the object of her desires did not live up to her expectations. Is her mistress really alone and naked in bed, like she imagines? Likely no one knows her schedule better than her personal maid, but the speaker does not appear to realize the control she is exerting in this imaginary scenario, and how it contrasts with the fact that in reality, her mistress exists outside of her control.
How do this poem’s form, enjambment, and use of language support or undercut the poem’s content?
Certain moments of this poem feel jagged. Even the first line of this poem is a fragment; this contrasts with the flowery formality often associated with the Victorian era. This fractured quality may be a nod to how the speaker is pushed into the servant-master relationship and has little hope of escaping it, even if her mistress wishes for the same thing.
That aforementioned first line, “Next to my own skin, her pearls,” is closely mirrored by the line ending the second stanza, “Slack on my neck, her rope.” The fragmented nature of these sentences suggests the physical sensation of being choked off, which recalls both the pearl necklace and its potential to be pulled tight, and also nods to the fact that this relationship cannot go much farther than it has.
How does this poem treat gender?
Much of the imagery in this poem is heavily gendered, as the sector of life that these characters are confined to is distinctly female. The mention of the Yellow Room seems to indicate a sort of delicate purgatory, where matters such as fabric choices for gowns can be the focus of serious discussion. The entire day described here focuses around preparing for the dance that the mistress attends. Afterward, the mistress unwinds. The focus on this dance indicates that the mistress is looking for a husband, or at least that she is supposed to be doing so. To the speaker, who is never in the presence of these suitors, they are merely a blurry, unimportant detail of the mistress’s day, overpowered by the pearls and her own warmth in the pearls, outsized by the many lines devoted to those topics. The feminine life shown here exists privately and sensually, existing in the small space between the speaker, the mistress, and the mirror. This poem does what Duffy does best, turning details that would be trivial in a male-centered story into crucial symbols of intimacy which pushes against the seams of its own confinement.
How does homoeroticism work into this poem?
"Warming Her Pearls" exemplifies the poetic action of queering objects. Here the objects that represent the feminine sector of Victorian life turn to represent queerness and queer eroticism. The hairbrush, the necklace, and the looking-glass become vehicles of queer eroticism, turned from everyday objects into gestures of intimacy. The characters' physical proximity and intimacy are challenged by the distance between their economic classes and the boundaries forced upon them by the requirements of a servant/mistress relationship. Those boundaries are invisible, for the maid has access to the most intimate parts of her mistress's life. The question posed by the poem is whether this has become a queer relationship masquerading as a relationship between employer and employee, or if the speaker has misread the intimate moments between herself and her mistress as a homoerotic relationship.