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. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
I never really expect much from books that go off of classics. I’ve often found that they are disappointing and they don’t do justice to the original characters. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this book as I think it did a fairly good job at keeping true to the time period and the original novel, Pride and Prejudice. There is so much I could say about the plot and the characters, but I don’t want to give too much away in case those who haven’t read the book are reading my review. This is why the section on the main plot and characters seems so short compared to the rest.
Jo Baker does a great job in creating characters that readers will love and become attached to. Mrs. Hill is a likable mother figure for the two girls, Sarah and Polly, who were both brought to the Bennet house as orphans. Polly is a lovable young girl whose naivety can be both endearing and dangerous, while Sarah is older and craves some excitement in an otherwise rather dull life.
Sarah, the main character of the novel, was sometimes quite similar to Elizabeth Bennet. She is quick to judge people and is later forced to admit that she may have been wrong in her assumptions. Sarah is also an individual despite being a housemaid. She has a mind of her own and loves to read and learn whenever she gets the chance to do so. She knows what she wants and she refuses to settle for less. In the end, Sarah knows exactly what she wants and will stop at nothing to achieve the happiness that we as readers feels she deserves. She is an admirable example of a strong, independent woman during a time when these traits were often frowned upon.
James is immediately a mysterious character whose backstory doesn’t end up revealing itself until later on in the book. Even though the reader is a little uneasy as to his past life before coming to the Bennet house, the reader still finds him a likable character and hopes that his past won’t get in the way of his potential happiness with Sarah, once Sarah gets over her suspicions of course.
But I believe that the most challenging and therefore interesting part of this book was how Jo Baker decided to portray these very famous characters from the original novel. Most of the characters, I believe, were handled very well, and a couple were even given some interesting back story. However, I do have a couple of reservations. I may be prejudice (haha see what I did there) since I love the original novel so much, but hear me out.
If it’s at all possible, Mr. Wickham is a bigger scumbag in this book than originally portrayed in the novel. He shows a creepy and rather dangerous interest in young Polly and his deceitful charms are extenuated by the fact that all of the serving staff, except for poor Polly, can see right through it. This also makes Lydia’s inevitable marriage to him rather sad and, I believe, gives the reader more sympathy for Lydia than they had in the original novel.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are portrayed rather faithfully. They seem just like how they were in the original. However, Jo Baker reveals to us a couple bits of backstory about the both of them that make their characters that much more interesting. I was impressed that these additions actually managed to work well with my image of these characters and so these additions didn’t seem like blatant drama added for the pleasure of the modern audience but rather an inside look into the stories that Jane Austen didn’t get a chance to write herself.
The same is true for her treatment of Mary, but rather than giving her backstory, the reader gets to actually see Mary. In the original, Mary was invisible for the majority of the book, but Jo Baker gives her some page time. From her growing interest in Mr. Collins to her heartbreak at his marriage to another, Mary is revealed to be more than just the forgotten middle child, but a person who sometimes craves the attention of others but just doesn’t know how to get it.
My only reservation with her character treatment is how Elizabeth is portrayed near the end of the book. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth seems to be the Elizabeth that we know and love. She is kind to the serving staff and makes sure that Sarah always has a book to read by often lending her books she has gotten from the library. However, by the end of the novel, we start to see this self-assured and confident Elizabeth start to fade away. The book continues on a ways after Elizabeth marries Mr. Darcy. Before the marriage, Elizabeth doesn’t seem to be as happy about this future marriage to Mr. Darcy as we would expect her to be but instead is nervous and sometimes unsure. After the marriage, it is clear that Elizabeth has changed as she tends to keep Sarah in the background at all times and never again shows her the attention that she once gave to her loyal servant. Granted, these changes could be understandable with the increase in her social status, but I believe that readers would rather imagine that Elizabeth was strong enough to continue to be that girl we all fell for rather than just another woman who changed for a man. Of course, Elizabeth is one of my all-time favorite literary characters, so I hate to see her messed with to any degree. Which is why this section is so long, even though this really isn’t a major part of the book. Sorry about that, but it had to come out.
Overall, I thought that this was a fun and is a good read for any Jane Austen fan. Seeing the servants’ side of things reveals more about the time period, as well as the characters that we have all grown to love and, in the case of Mr. Wickham, hate. Definitely one of the more successful classic literature spin-offs I have read.