“If Elizabeth Bennett had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.”
That line pretty much sums up what this book is about. Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The servants at Longbourn get on with their work in the background while the events of P&P unfold upstairs. Mr. Hill, the butler; Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper and lady’s maid to Mrs. Bennet; Sarah, the housemaid and lady’s maid to all five Bennet sisters; Polly, the scullery maid; and James, the footman. They all live and work at Longbourn, dealing with the concerns of their own lives, as well as those of the Bennets.
We mostly follow Sarah as she goes through life as a housemaid taking care of all five Bennet sisters. She was brought to Longbourn as an orphan child, and has been raised there, working hard washing dishes, doing laundry, and dressing the Bennet girls. The book does shift through various other points of view, more notably that of Mrs. Hill and James, but we mostly follow Sarah.
It truly is an interesting perspective on the story. To Elizabeth’s eyes, they are the poorer side of gentry. They don’t have large carriages or a huge house or new dresses. To Sarah, Miss Elizabeth’s life is one of ease and unimaginable luxury. When Jane and Elizabeth give Sarah one of their cast-off and unwanted dresses, she refuses to wear it every day, thinking it too special and beautiful for regular use. Sarah considers the Bennet problems of what to wear to the next ball and how to attract a rich husband to be trivial, as well she might. When you are working hard every day just to continue surviving, not having a new dress is not really your priority. Mrs. Bennet’s endless talk about her nerves and faked illnesses look even more ridiculous when Mrs. Hill is trying to console her while also trying to run the household and take care of Sarah and Polly.
Actually, it kind of made all the upstairs characters look bad. Even Jane and Elizabeth, who are supposed to come out of the story as the good guys, end up looking selfish and caught up with trivial matters. At one point, Elizabeth promises Sarah she’ll write to Lydia about something very important to Sarah, and when Sarah mentions it later on, Elizabeth looks at her blankly, clearly having completely forgotten. While Elizabeth is kind to her, she can also be thoughtlessly cruel, in the way that Sarah’s concerns are not really important to her.
Really, Mary and Mr. Collins are the only ones that come out looking good. Maybe it’s because dear Jane is so hard on both of them, and everyone feels sort of sorry for them. Taking in the general consensus, it’s implied that Mary is in love with Mr. Collins, and if only Elizabeth hadn’t been so repulsed by the very idea of him, she could have steered him in that direction. Mr. Collins comes off as shy, bumbling, awkward, but not gross like he does in the book. It’s interesting to note that Mrs. Hill goes out of her way to please him, rightly assuming that as the new master of Longbourn he could hire all new servants when he inherits, and they all would be both unemployed and homeless.
There’s quite a lot of (maybe an excessive amount of) what I would call “real talk”. Aka dear Jane didn’t really focus on things like chamber pots and flea bites and menstruation. I sort of get that dear Jane didn’t mention it because Elizabeth isn’t the one who washes out the mud from her petticoats, Sarah is, so that’s the point. But must we dwell on chamber pots? One or two mentions is fine, but we don’t need to know every time Sarah has to clean them.
This story falls into what I call the “Strong Independent Modern Woman” trap, that so many of these stories do. Sarah is too modern in her thinking, too much like a 21st century woman. She would never have expected to do anything except be in service in that time. She might dream of something more, but the something more she’d dream about is to, at the very most, become housekeeper or own a shop. For a girl of that time, with no family connections, money, or education, wanting to be independent would just not be a reasonable expectation. I get that the author wants the character to appeal to a modern audience, but not at the expense of historical believability.
One of the things I really liked was the “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” quality of the story. While the events of P&P of course effect the servants, they are all doing other things while that action plays out in the background. Of course Sarah is aware of Mr. Bingley, but she is much more aware and interested in his black servant, Tol Bingley. While Mr. Wickham charms Elizabeth with his false tales of Mr. Darcy, the servants can see more quickly that he’s a scoundrel, in the way he starts to make suggestive advances towards Polly. All the servants have other things going on in their lives, we don’t need to follow the plot of P&P around exactly. I really like that. Use it as a jumping point, but all means. But it’s a spring board, not a moving sidewalk. The places where the text diverts from the main P&P story were, in my opinion, the best parts. There are also some real plot twists, that I wasn’t expecting at all. I enjoyed being surprised in a story that I thought I knew.
Very enjoyable, definitely worth getting your hands on.