Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite novels of all time. The excellent writing and timeless romance make it (in my mind) the ultimate DIK. This book is a look at what Longbourn, the home of the Bennets, experienced below stairs while Elizabeth was meeting Darcy and Jane was being wooed by Bingley.
Sarah is a maid at Longbourn, a home a step up from a farm but by no means luxurious. While Longbourn is better than the poor house Sarah had lived in after all her family died it is still a place of hard work and long hours. The young ladies drop their clothes right where they step out of them. Ms. Elizabeth thinks nothing of tramping through fields and across muddy roadways leaving Sarah and the young Polly to soak and scrub her silk petticoats in the hope that at some point they will be able to get all the stains out. The monthlies, with the bloody rags they generate, make laundry days especially long and painful. Sarah’s chilblains crack and bleed, a fact to which everyone seems to give little thought. The one bright spot to this interminable day of boiling water and freezing moments hanging clothes to dry on the line is Sarah’s sighting of the scotchman. He is sure to stop at the house, anxious to sell the ladies some of his fine laces and ribbons, and then stop in the kitchen for a hot drink or meal and to sell his cheaper bits and pieces. The thought of something new helps her get through the long, pain filled day. Yet dinner that night is a sad affair for no scotchman had been to the house.
For Mrs. Hill, the scotchman Sarah thought she saw is of no real interest. What is the greater news is given casually to her as she and Sarah serve the family breakfast the next morning: Mr. Bennet has hired a footman! Without first having him interview with her or Mr. Hill, the butler. When she hears his name, James Smith, she is shocked enough that she speaks out of turn while serving. For Sarah’s part she is startled but pleased to be getting the help. There is far too much work for the current staff to handle and an extra pair of hands – a strong pair of hands – are much needed. It is with surprise therefore that she realizes that Mrs. Hill is more upset than pleased. It is with even greater surprise that she overhears Mrs. Hill fighting with Mr. Bennet later that day in the library. For Mr. Bennet to engage any of the staff in conversation is odd enough, for him to actually tolerate the insubordination of being yelled at – and compounding the oddness by yelling back – is stunning indeed. Deciding the housekeeper deserves her privacy for all the many kindnesses she has given her over the years Sarah says nothing. But she has a premonition that things are about to get very strange indeed at Longbourn.
Sarah’s foreboding proves true as changes too vast to numerate begin to take over life at the house. The biggest change for her is the footman. Sarah initially has little trust for James. He is a hard worker but his quiet ways and strict guarding of his privacy make her suspect he is harboring a large secret. When she shares her suspicions with Mrs. Hill she is told to mind her own, although she finds that hard to do in light of the fact that his every act seems designed to keep the family from knowing some truth. When the news that Netherfield Park has been let is told it momentarily distracts her: There is a general exhilaration upstairs and a soft groan downstairs. All are aware that the wooing of young men will generate a great deal of work for staff. An unexpected guest in the form of Mr. Collins, future owner of Longbourn and therefore a personage of great importance to Mrs. Hill and the other servants, arrives and sends everyone into an uproar.
It doesn’t help that the army has just arrived at Meryton, turning Lydia and Kitty’s heads and making them delirious with joy while making James as anxious as a cat on a hot tin roof. Sarah, who has long been suspicious that a young, healthy man would want to hide away in their small house when he could easily find service in a grander place (men being short on the ground due to the war) notices James’ reaction but keeps her peace. Pretty soon it grows easy to do so as she becomes distracted by Ptolemy Bingley, a mulatto servant working at Netherfield Park. James seems almost jealous of this new man, anxious to keep Sarah from spending too much time with him. Yet as Ptolemy goes back and forth with letters between the two households, Sarah grows closer to the young, handsome servant, learning of his dreams to open a tobacco shop and of his history on islands far away from England. She also learns a great deal about herself as she is torn between two possible futures, each fraught with its own risks, both offering love as the reward.
The bright aspects of this novel are its dedication to history and simple yet lovely prose. The author’s style is clear and direct, weaving the tapestry of her story with clean, neat strokes that surprise with their complexity and beauty. I could picture almost everything that was happening, every character was lovingly depicted and drawn with consistency and attention to detail. The history of the time period appears on every page, whether it is in how the laundry is done or where the privy is. We get a look at the true difference of life below stairs and above, not just in wealth but in expectation of behavior and how sex and courtship are handled. We learn just what it took to make a house like Longbourn into a lovely home.
Sarah, Mrs. Hill, and James are the three people that show us this world. Mrs. Hill, who has the heart of a mother, has been delighted to take in Sarah and little Polly from the poor house. She knows life at Longbourn, even with all the hard labor, is far better than what they were fated for where they were. However, her life is one of great stress. Not only does she have a fractious mistress to contend with, thanks to the entailment and Mr. Bennet’s poor management the entire household lives under the cloud of a very uncertain future. Her hope is that Mr. Collins will marry one of the young ladies, who will be certain not to change staff. But what if he doesn’t? What will happen to them all then?
James has a history with the house that only Mrs. Hill is familiar with. Their shared secret strengthens the bond between the two but upsets Mrs. Hill’s equilibrium in ways Sarah can’t understand. But it is not just the secret he shares with Mrs. Hill that makes his life one of stress. There is also the other secret, the dangerous secret, that could cost him his very life if found out.
Sarah is growing into a woman and with that growth has come knowledge. She realizes that a girl of her class lives in a precarious position indeed and yet she longs to stretch herself beyond the boundaries allotted her. She often resents her position, thinking that “To live so entirely at the mercy of other peoples’ whims and fancies was … no way to live at all.” She can’t help comparing her life to that of Elizabeth, she “wondered what it could be like to live like this – life as a country dance, where everything is lovely and graceful and ordered and every single turn is preordained and not a foot may be set outside the measure.” This was nothing like Sarah’s own existence “out–in-all weathers haul and trudge, the wind howling and blustery.” Because we spend much of our time with her the book is permeated with Sarah’s growing resentment and the conviction of all those below stairs that life is, indeed, vastly unfair.
In the end it is this factor that kept me from loving the novel, despite its near perfect execution. It was also a bit bewildering to have Pride and Prejudice turn into a story where Jane’s sweetness does not extend to those beneath her and they receive from her only a vague, soft neglect and occasional minor acknowledgement; where Elizabeth is both selfish and snobbish (most especially in declining Mr. Collins) and where Mr. Bennet comes across as not just careless and thoughtless but heartless as well. Mr. Darcy is nearly a tyrant and the Bingleys have a dark stain on their characters.
On the other hand, Mr. Collins is a sweet if awkward young man who cares about those below him. I found this hard to accept given how anxious he is for the approval of his “betters” and his own seeming acceptance of that social order in the original novel. Lydia and Mrs. Bennet are seen as very sweet if a bit empty headed. Charlotte is seen as practical and kind and it is a general relief when it is learned that she will be the mistress of the house. The one character who remains consistent is Mr. Wickham. In this novel he is not just a cad but a touch of a pedophile as well.
Combining this tale with Pride and Prejudice had me doing a constant compare and contrast between the two books. Unfortunately this book then comes off as good, very good even but not excellent. I would recommend it to fans of the original work, since this is always a fun world to revisit and those who love novels rich in historical detail.