• Pride and Prejudice was only half the story •
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.
Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.
This book is often described as Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey. Since I adore both (and the cover is gorgeous), I went in with high expectations that were not really met in the end.
The first half of this book was beautiful. I was really impressed by how much Baker’s writing style aligned with Austen’s, and I loved the insights that the ‘downstairs’ perspective offered into the original story. Seeing Elizabeth and the whole Bennet family from the perspective of their servants added a brand new dimension to them. It was also really interesting to see how the servants live at this time. A common theme throughout Austen’s works is that of poverty amongst the upper class, where families are worried about losing their inheritance or how they are going to make ends meet. This book really put Austen’s definition of poverty into perspective, and highlighted the fact that – while the Bennets may not be abundantly wealthy – they are still living quite the comfortable lifestyle.
About halfway through it, though, the style just seemed to change. Some of the characters started using colorful language that didn’t seem particularly accurate for the period, and definitely was not consistent with Austen. One married character was secretly having homosexual trysts, Sarah had a very modern approach to love and flirtation, and some of the original Pride and Prejudice characters made some decisions that seemed very out of character for them. I’ve read modern adaptations of Pride and Prejudice where some of these things were present, but because it was a modern setting they didn’t feel out of place at all. Because this book was written in parallel to the original, it just all felt very off in the context of Austen’s Regency England, especially in contrast to how well the first half was written.
Overall it was an interesting perspective, I just didn’t love all of the execution.