Upstairs, the almost desperate Bennet family seeks husbands for five charming daughters. Downstairs, the servants scurry through endless labour and winter mud. In Longbourn, Jo Baker successfully recreates life on the other side of the kitchen door, a life secreted from the readers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Young Sarah is the senior housemaid; in reality, this means she has the assistance of the dreamy eleven-year-old Polly as they hasten to fulfill the orders of the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill. Sarah’s hands are raw, both from prying mud from Miss Elizabeth’s petticoats and shoes and from using lye to restore the whiteness of the undergarments. (Lizzie does love to wander the fields whatever the weather.) And, the housemaid has the duty of carrying the full chamber pots down the stairs and across the muddy, rutted yard to deposit the contents in the “necessary”. She rises earlier than everyone else to light the fires so others will be warm, and sometimes she stays up late to help the gentry with their coats after a night out with friends. Sarah has no friends, no nights out, nothing.
Three men come into Sarah’s constrained world. Ptolemy Bingley, assigned his employer’s name, of course, is a footman with a roving eye and plans for a smoke shop in London. His kiss has the expected effect on a completely innocent but desiring girl. James Smith (a suspect surname), new footman in the Bennet household, persuades Sarah that her efforts to decamp to London seeking Ptolemy’s dream may be misplaced. And, the charming but despicable Mr. Wickham, an upstairs man who too often invades the downstairs sphere, disturbs Sarah’s stultifying but safe world, just as he disturbs the family life of the Bennets.
Jo Baker has written a novel not in the tradition of Jane Austen sequels but in an engaging parallel universe. The doings of the Bennets are seen from the perspective of how much work will be created for the servants and how events will affect their lives. The pressures that affect servants are much different than for the gentry: the militia, the miserable weather, the importunities of guests, and the gaining or losing of a penny. As ever with near-poverty, the servants can afford neither pride nor prejudice.
- Judith Umbach