A brilliantly imagined, irresistible below-stairs answer to Pride and Prejudice: a story of the romance, intrigue, and drama among the servants of the Bennet household, a triumphant tale of defying society’s expectations, and an illuminating glimpse of working-class lives in Regency England.
I’ve read a couple of books “inspired” by “Pride and Prejudice” – the last one being “Death comes to Pemberley” and have always been slightly disappointed with them. So whilst I had heard some good things about this new book, I was both excited and worried about reading it.
Jo Baker however has done a really rather good job of it I must say. There’s enough of the original story’s plot lines to frame this story of how P&P affects the staff for it to be satisfying for the most ardent P&P fan.
This is almost two books in one – the main story is that of Sarah, the older maid working in Longbourn with Mrs Hill the housekeeper and cook (who is referred to a lot in the original), Mr Hill her husband and Polly the young maid in training. Into this mix comes James Smith as the new footman and Ptolemy Bingley, the mulatto footman for the Bingleys. Both men turn the head of Sarah for different reasons and leads to threads never alluded to in the main text, but which are credible. Book Three marks a short departure in the story, telling a story of the wars in Europe that Austen could never tell, and which could have constituted a novel/novella in its own right.
There are some things that at first reading are perhaps a little too modern – some Wickham’s actions are disturbing when viewed with modern eyes. I had to step away and think for a bit but then remembered in the context of his behaviour towards Georgiana in the original, and that he elopes with the 15 year old Lydia, his behaviour towards the 13 year old Polly is actually pretty much in character. Plus this is an age where if unmarried at 21, women were considered to be spinsters and unmarriable.
Nearly everyone from the original book makes some kind of appearance in this one, but Baker makes the sensible choice of not trying to mimic Austen’s dialogue too much. Mr Collins, Mrs Bennet and Elizabeth Bennet are the ones to make the most appearances, and their speech is kept to a minimum. Mr Bennet features as heavily in this book as he does in the original, but has more significance and influence in this book.
The language used brings a certain long languid summer day feel to the story, where one day runs into the next, especially for those who only need to know when the quarter days and holy-days are. The story and the way it’s written is nearly enough to make you forget the initial premise – much more smooth that the previously mentioned “Death comes to Pemberley” by P. D. James.
Overall a great addition to both the Historical Fiction and the P&P canon.