This is one of the many, many tie-ins to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, although very obliquely; this is the imagined view from “belowstairs.”
Baker provides readers with a detailed view of what life was like in the early 1800’s for those responsible for the household. They put in long, long hours, having to be up early enough to ensure that their employers “upstairs” awoke to warm hearths, available hot water, clean and mended clothes, and hot meals. Doing the laundry in particular, in the days before washing machines, was a huge and tiring chore, especially if there were children in diapers or women who were menstruating. (And the Bennet family had six women!) If any of the family members went out in the evening, the staff also had to wait up until they returned, to help them down from their carriages, take care of the horses, and bring the family members snacks if required. Then there was the whole issue of tending to the chamber pots, and cleaning out the outhouse.
The below stairs staff consists of Mr. and Mrs. Hill (he for the horse and carriage work and she in charge of housekeeping) and two orphaned girls: Sarah, who is now becoming a young woman, and Polly, still a preteen. Suddenly their burdens are lightened by the hiring of a young man, James Smith, to take over as Footman for the aging Mr. Hill. James does even more; he is hard-working and generous with his help, and watches out for Sarah in spite of her immediate hostility toward him.
When the Bingleys come to Longbourne, Sarah develops a fascination for their footman Ptolemy (“Tol”). He seems to be drawn to Sarah as well. But their time is not their own, of course, to pursue any such attraction. Sarah wonders:
“Would she, at some time, have the chance to care for her own things, her own comforts, her own needs, and not just for other people’s? Could she one day have what she wanted, rather than rely on the glow of other people’s happiness to keep her warm?”
We get occasional glimpses of the people upstairs, and whispery indications of secrets being revealed. In some cases, as with Wickham and Bingley, Baker adds to Austen’s portraits with details of her own. But the secrets that come out about the downstairs characters are more salient in this story, and for me at least, quite unexpected. And the romantic involvements and upheavals are every bit as convoluted and rewarding as those occurring upstairs.
Discussion: Some Jane Austen fans have been a bit disgruntled with this book because it shows the Bennets in a less favorable light than they would prefer. But I think if one sees the Bennets from the point of view of those who are expected to get up in the cold and haul wood and water for them, and be at their beck and call, a less rosy view of those in the upper classes doesn’t seem unreasonable. For example, after being lectured by Mr. Collins about finding her work “sanctifying,” Sarah muses (while taking out his chamberpot):
“This, she reflected, as she crossed the rainy yard, and strode out to the necessary house, and slopped the pot’s contents down the hole, this was her duty, and she could find no satisfaction in it, and found it strange that anybody might think a person could. She rinsed the pot out at the pump and left it to freshen in the rain. If this was her duty, then she wanted someone else’s.”
There are moments of very fine writing in this book. At one point, one of the characters imagines what she would write to the man she loved if she could:
“I would write about how you make me be entirely in myself, and more real than I had ever thought was possible. I would ask if you miss me like I miss you, so that there is not another spot in all the world that seems to mean anything at all, but where you are. That the days until I see you again are just to be got through … and that nothing good is to be expected of them at all, but that they will eventually be over, and I will be on my way back home to you.”
The ending is absolutely lovely, both in form and content.
Evaluation: I think this variation on Pride and Prejudice is much better than most. It is well-written, and the characterizations are excellent. Sarah is a spunky, courageous heroine, and James could easily give Darcy a run of the money as a dashing, romantic hero who withstands the test of time.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, 2013