5 out of 5 Regency stars
I read this for Austen in August – please see The Book Rat if you would like to find out more.
I freaking loved this and should apologize beforehand for the length of this review, because I will gush. I want to kick myself for waiting so long to read it. I’ve had it for almost two years. This is set during Pride and Prejudice, but it’s from the point of view of the servants. I say it’s set during the events of P&P, because it’s so much more than that. It’s not a retelling, there’s a story going on belowstairs as dramatic and heart-wrenching as the one upstairs. It has romance, longing, self-discovery, bravery, cowardice, villains, heroes, heroines, desertion, and reunion. Phew. There is so much that is good in this.
I was hooked from the first page. I read a lot of historical fiction and literature from that era so I can tell when someone knows their business, and Jo Baker did her job. This had to be hard to research. I also write historical stuff, and I know some tidbits can be hard to find, especially the stuff about daily life. This feels so genuine. I love that the author listed her reference books in the acknowledgements. This is hands down one of the best historical books I have ever read, the best Austen-ite novel I’ve ever read, and it’s taken its place among my favorite novels overall. That is how good it is.
The story mostly centers around Sarah, the older of the two housemaids. Let’s face it – Longbourn is no Pemberley. A massive estate would have people that had specific jobs, everything would be spread out and the work easier. On smaller estates, there were fewer servants and they had to do everything. Aging Mr. Hill is the coachman and butler. Mrs. Hill, his wife, is the cook and housekeeper, in charge of the two young maids, who came from either orphanages or the workhouse. Polly is still a child, only 12 or 13 (she’s not sure). I’m not sure how old Sarah is, but I don’t think she’s much older than Lydia, at 15 or 16. It’s hard on the women as there are no men to help with the heavy work. In the first scene, we see Sarah (who is very slight) getting water from the pump outside, into two heavy buckets, hauling it across the wet courtyard and slipping in pigshit. Pigshit that little Polly should have cleaned away.
I can’t imagine what it was like to live in that time, much less to be a servant. Doing the laundry must have been absolute hell. They used harsh soaps, mostly lye and boiling water. Imagine how heavy a huge blanket or sheets would be, as you struggle to put them through the mangle, still wet, freezing in the cold of winter or blistering hot in the heat of summer. Each season would have its own horrors. And the writing is so good, you feel all of Sarah’s discomforts. Could you imagine what your hands would feel like after a day of the washing and cleaning you would have to do? I’ve read stories where chilblains are mentioned. I know what they are, but I’ve never read a story that showed me what it feels like to have them on your hands, and to be doing your other jobs, like touching the freezing cold pump, with these things on your hand.
Because you aren’t in the drawing room, you’re in the kitchen and the pigshit, where life is much grittier. Here is something from the first few pages that sets the tone of the book.
“The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber floor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures that they really were. Perhaps that was why they spoke instructions at her from behind an embroidery hoop or over the top of a book: she had scrubbed away their sweat, their stains, their monthly blood; she knew they weren’t as rarified as angels, and so they couldn’t just look her in the eye.”
Despite the above, the girls, especially Jane and Elizabeth, are very kind to the maids, and Sarah idolizes them. I’m doing so much gushing and I’m not getting on to the story! The first round of drama is that Mr. B (their term for Mr. Bennet) has hired a footman! At Longbourn, he does more than work in the house – he takes care of the horses, will take over for Mr. Hill as coachman, who is too old to drive the young ladies out in the cold of winter. It’s all the rage to have a nice young man to serve at dinner and take messages. It makes them look richer, according to Mrs. B. Sarah is intrigued. As you can imagine, it’s not like she gets off the estate or beyond Meryton, and her access to young men has been very limited. However, this young man, James Smith, is about as talkative as a stone. He’s also kind and thoughtful and very mysterious.
He’s not the only young man in the vicinity. Mr. Bingley has come to the neighborhood, and with him is a handsome, poised young footman who runs between the two estates, bringing messages and intrigue. Sarah has never seen a black man before, and is surprised his name is also Bingley. Ptolemy Bingley (called Tol) was born on the old Mr. Bingley’s estates in Jamaica, and he says that they take the name of the man whose estate they were born on. He is half-black, and Baker does use the term “mulatto.” which is a problematic word, but it’s the word they would use, and now I become that white girl who says “but it’s historically accurate!” It’s very rare for a person of color to be in a historical novel, especially one set in England – and I’m just glad that Baker addressed the issue of slavery. It’s also possible that Tol is Mr. Bingley’s half-brother, because the elder Mr. Bingley brought Tol to England in the first place and gave him a job on his estate. He is educated, and really impresses Sarah, not only because he is handsome, wears his livery and powdered wig to perfection, but because he speaks like a gentleman, and she’s never met a servant with such polish. He sets Mrs. Hill’s back up, though, with his familiar ways. She can clearly see that Sarah’s head is being turned, and wants her to have nothing to do with him. He is Sarah’s first taste of having a crush and thinking beyond her current life, and the jealousy that bubbles between James & Tol just adds to the drama.
The idea that there is something beyond Sarah’s current life runs through the book. And the whole time, I’m thinking, girl, you need to stay where you are safe and warm. The line between housed and fed and jobless and dead was a narrow one at this time, especially for a servant. Once you left a job or were turned away “without a character” you would almost have to take up a new name or lie about your past to try and get a job somewhere, and pray they didn’t research your back trail.
All this time, there is the story of Pride and Prejudice going on above stairs. Mr. Bingley and the militia come to town, the younger girls get up to dickins, Mr. Collins comes and makes himself a nuisance, you know the story. When Elizabeth is invited to go see Charlotte in her new home with Mr. Collins, Sarah is brought along and sees another type of household. It is heavily influenced by Lady Catherine: the Collins’ housekeeper is a dragon, the little housemaid they have lives in terror.
And… the perfidious Mr. Wickham. What is a P&P variation of any kind without Wickham doing his devilry. There is a mystery surrounding James, the footman, and Wickham, the useless Wickham, who can do nothing but unravel everyone’s life comes along and figures out his secret (well, one of them. A man of many mysteries is James). The book is in different volumes, like an Austen novel would be. At one point it reminded me of Atonement, because we go from domestic life to a flashback of James’ time in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsula wars. I’m not a huge fan of war stories. However, the writing in this part is sublime. Again, you feel like you’re on the long march, you starve with the soldiers, you feel the despair and hopelessness of the downtrodden people all around that he can’t help. Then James is left behind by the regiment and his life seems to spiral out of control.
I can’t recommend this enough. I don’t think I did as good of a job with this review as I would like, but if you love Austen and are reluctant to read the glut of novels that have used her work as a springboard, please read this one. It is its own thing, and stands on its own very well. I am really surprised (and embarrassed) at the number of people who have a cow about this novel showing the ugly side of being a servant, include realistic people of color and the treatment of servants during this time (and even so, you would think there was only one black man in all of England – that is not the case). When your life deals mostly with cleaning up other people’s filth and there’s no plumbing, your life is going to be dirty, and your thoughts are going to run to thoughts about those things. There are plenty of nice, clean, whitewashed regencies that don’t talk about the privy or that the menstrual rags had to be boiled clean by the servants, the slave trade, or have illegitimate children in them. Go forth and read them and don’t worry about where Mr. Bingley got his money if those things bother you. But know that you are only getting a fantasy version of what life was like in those times.