In brief: Pride and Prejudice with a twist – told from the view of the servants.
The good: Original idea that is executed well with a lot of new content.
The not-so-good: More Mr Darcy please!
Why I chose it: eGalley from Random House Australia – thank you!
Publisher: Random House
My rating: 8 out of 10
Despite the number of Pride and Prejudice sequels, prequels and retellings, I can’t recall any being told from the servants’ point of view. In fact, I can’t remember any servants even having much to say in Pride and Prejudice! Here, Jo Baker has hit on an original formula – not an easy trick when there must be hundreds of books on the subject out there. This aspect of storytelling allows Baker to give the servants a voice and invent a whole new range of problems, scandals and joy amongst one of the world’s most well-known stories.
The first thing you need to remember is that this is the story of the servants. It’s not about Lizzie, Jane or Lydia. Think of it as being written around a family you’re familiar with. If you want buckets of the Bennets, go back to the original. This is the story of Sarah, Mr and Mrs Hill and Polly. They serve the Bennets, and it’s not an easy thing. Lizzie does tramp in the mud rather a lot and washing was an arduous job in those days. Lydia has a way of forgetting until the last minute that she needs something and Mrs Bennet is in need of…well, everything really. Their day starts before dawn and doesn’t end until the family is tucked up in bed – even if they have been at a ball all night. Fortunately, a new man joins the servant staff – Mr Smith. Sarah, our main character, is not sure what to make of him at first – is he friend or foe? But there’s not much time to ponder this as Mr Bingley comes onto the scene, bringing his handsome servant. Will Sarah let her head be turned or will she accept Mr Smith’s kindnesses? While this is going on, Mrs Hill has her own problems to contemplate which magnify as the narrative continues. As Wickham becomes known to the Bennets, there’s danger for young Polly, who never says no to a penny or a sweet.
What I really liked about this book is the way it made me think about the Bennets. Over time, we think that they can do no wrong, but Baker tests our faith. Despite their lack of money, there were quite well off to have a servant staff and they do put quite a few demands on their time. Lizzie and Jane, although sweet to Sarah, are not her equals and Sarah feels this acutely. This is a whole other side of the class structure, particularly exemplified in the latter stages where Darcy and Elizabeth are aghast at Sarah’s desire to do something unusual for her class (I don’t want to give it away!). There’s a whole subplot devoted to the mysterious Mr Smith and where he came from that had me astounded at first (that would never happen!) but the more I thought about it, the more that I knew that such underhand things did go on back then. It let me take the Bennets off their pedestal – the family I studied for a long time! Mr Darcy does come away unscathed though (somewhat to my relief).
Baker is also brave in continuing the story beyond the ending of Pride and Prejudice. As this is not the Bennet’s story, I didn’t have a problem with it, although some may argue that what happens in Longbourn is ‘not what happened’ (but then nobody knows what did!). I loved how Baker put the Bennets in the background and I thought the ending was just beautiful – courageous yet sweet.
One thing I should add is that the book is not written in the genteel tone of Austen – this is a book for the modern reader. Yes, there are chamber pots, sexual references and the occasional swear word but the wonder at the originality of the story will keep you reading late into the night.