I’m a big fan of Pride and Prejudice so this novel by Jo Baker was on my must-read list, Jane Austen’s world famous love story, the world of the Bennett Family’s Longbourn but from a fresh, new perspective, that of the servants.
At the start of the novel we gain a taste of the harsh and real world the servants live in, Sarah is drained from starting work early in the morning and finishing late in the day, she has chilblains and aching limbs from physically demanding work serving the family. We also meet the other servants Mr and Mrs Hill and the youngest girl servant Polly who is but a child.
The plot follows the story of the original and starts as Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy have arrived at Netherfield. This is the cause of great joy for the family but extra work for those below stairs. Newcomers in the form of Mr Bingley’s footman Ptolemy Bingley and James, the mysterious yet hardworking man servant who joins the Bennett family add some interest to Sarah’s existence as each one of them journeys to make peace with their past and find hope for the future.
The characters of the Bennett family remain fairly true to form as in Austen’s orginal work but for Mary who in Baker’s story has a hidden lonely depth, a girl who has dreams and yet none of the charms of her sisters that can help her win her man. We also get an insight into the privilege of class and rank where even immorality can be dealt with and hidden by wealth contrasted against the harshness and suffering of the servant life, the abuse of power to protect reputation.
Although at times I found the story somewhat depressing the themes of Pride and Prejudice, marrying for love or marrying for money, security and stability remain, a woman’s lot in an unforgiving world is shown through the servant characters as it is in the families they serve. Ultimately Baker’s story is a love story, the triangle of Sarah, Ptolemy and James is eventually resolved and as we understand the complexities of the servant characters they become perhaps even more colourful and interesting to the reader being all the more human and real each one a triumph over adversity and despite all the hardship each one capable of loving and being loved.