Even if you haven’t heard about Jo Baker’s recent novel, you may recognize the title as the name of the village where the Bennett family lived in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and that village is indeed where this novel is set. But Baker’s interests lie beyond the Bennett family. Instead, she focuses on the servants at the Bennett home. The Bennetts, Mr. Collins, the Bingleys and so on are incidental players, relevant only insofar as their lives affect those of the servants.
Sarah, the older of the two housemaids, is the main character here, although the book does not focus entirely on her. There’s also Mr and Mrs Hill, who run the house, and the younger housemaid, Polly. A footman, James, joins the household under strange circumstances when the book begins. Sarah takes an almost instantaneous dislike to James, but, this being a book inspired by Pride and Prejudice, those first impressions don’t necessarily hold.
As interested as I was in seeing this different side of Longbourn life, it took me a while to warm to these characters. I found that I was more intrigued by the idea of them than I was in the characters themselves. Sarah’s attitude about James, for example, seemed to come out of the blue. There wasn’t sufficient context for her dislike; it seemed like a manufactured internal conflict, there to provide drama where none was needed. And the introduction of another handsome servant, the mulatto Ptolemy Bingley of Netherfield, didn’t add much. The characters felt like parts of a formula–the discontented servant, the mysterious and attractive stranger, the even more mysterious and attractive stranger, the child, the parent figures. As someone who spent my early teen years reading a steady diet of Sunfire Romances, I felt I knew this story, even if I couldn’t be entirely certain which man Sarah would choose.
There also might have been one too many references to the grittier aspects of Longbourn life. A lot of contemporary historical fiction seems to revel in the fact that authors today can write freely about smells and secretions and sex, and it gets on my nerves. I don’t want my history white-washed, but I don’t want to focus on the chamber pots and menstrual rags and body hair. In Baker’s case it’s not gratuitous. When you clean up after people, you get acquainted with their mess. It’s part of Sarah’s world. Still, the fact that it’s a historical fiction pet peeve means I get distracted when it comes up frequently. For me, less would have been more.
What held my interest early on were the clever ways Baker links her story with Austen’s. The downstairs staff may be nearly invisible in Austen’s novel, but the actions of those upstairs of course affect those who live and work downstairs. The staff in the Bennett home is, for example, concerned about Mr. Collins’s visit because he will one day inherit the house. If they want to keep their place, the staff would do well put their best foot forward when he visits. Mr. Bennett’s springing the visit on the whole household seems especially cruel at this moment. Again and again, we see how happy events or pleasing habits for the family create complications downstairs.
Baker’s renderings of the familiar characters from Pride and Prejudice seem true to Austen’s original, although the servants don’t necessarily see the characters the way we do. Elizabeth, while liked among the servants, becomes a source of annoyance when she takes her outside walks that get her boots and petticoats so muddy. Baker expands a bit on what we know about the characters, especially Mr. Bennett, and, to a lesser degree, Mary. Lovers of the original might be discomfited by the expansion of Mr. Bennett’s character, but what we learn about him doesn’t seem entirely unlikely, even if Austen had no such history in mind. I loved what she did with Mary. (I’ve always felt sorry for poor, awkward Mary, and it seems that Baker does too.)
The connections with Austen kept my attention, even when the main storyline didn’t impress me that much. But in the last half of the book, Baker turns away from Austen altogether to offer a lengthy bit of backstory focused on one of her own characters. It’s at this point that I became absorbed in her story for its own sake. I’m not sure if it’s because the Longbourn setting was a distraction or a crutch or if the story of the world beyond is just better. But that short time outside Austen’s world (but in her time) heightened my interest in the rest of the book. It raised the stakes for Baker’s characters and pushed Austen’s further into the background. From then on, I was in.
I’m still chewing over the ending. I was sufficiently diverted all the way through to the end, but I can’t quite decide what I think about how things turned out. There’s a narrative gap that I think needed filling, and I would have gone a different way with the characters’ decisions, but I’m neither Sarah nor Jo Baker. The path Baker puts Sarah on makes sense, and in that way it’s satisfying, even if it’s not entirely believable.