I’ve had this book waiting on my shelf for a while, so I finally decided to get it read. As a huge Pride and Prejudice fan (it’s one of my all-time favorite books) and one of those people who loves the upstairs/downstairs elements of Downton Abbey (and, obviously, Upstairs Downstairs), I figured it would be a fun little read.
Quick breakdown: this is the story of the servants who keep Longbourn running. In P&P, we know there are a couple of housemaids and Mrs. Hill (poor Hill, who always has to run and try to fix Mrs. Bennet), but that’s all. This allows Jo Baker to swoop in and develop whole personalities and storylines for our beloved servants.
Essentially, I thought this was a fun but I was not excessively diverted. I enjoyed creating backstories for the servants, especially because we have so little information about servants in general in JA books. I mean, it makes sense, because it’s the same reason there aren’t any scenes of men-only moments – it would have been highly inappropriate. Mrs. Hill is particularly interesting the way Baker builds her up because she reminds me of (for my DA fans) Mrs. Hughes mixed with Mrs. Wilson from Gosford Park. Brilliant, and very motherly, but with a definite edge.
Sarah, the lead housemaid, is less compelling. While there’s quite a bit of emphasis on the servants dealing with the upstairs (which makes sense, because there are five daughters under the age of 25 who no doubt make enormous messes), Sarah of course has her own love story. For anyone who has read P&P (which should be everyone picking up this book), you can see the outcome of the romance pretty quickly. Yes, there’s a bit of a twist at the end, but it wasn’t enough to really shock me.
Probably my favorite character was James Smith, the new manservant Mr. Bennet hires who causes a bit of an uproar downstairs. What I appreciated, other than the obvious goodness of him, was the backstory that’s revealed at the very end. He has a connection with the militia, which characters discuss early on, but in Volume Three, the exact nature of that connection is revealed and it’s a pleasant surprise.
In my ultimate nerdness, I must also admit that one of my favorite period piece dramas is Horatio Hornblower because 1) Ioan Gruffudd is fantastic, and 2) because it’s an awesome series about the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars. Now, in case you couldn’t tell, the Napoleonic era is one of my very favorite to study because there’s so much going on. And in JA novels, you don’t get a lot of military because the women at home weren’t really influenced. Yes, the men in uniform always pop up and cause some trouble, but there’s hardly discussions of Napoleon’s military tactics in the tea room.
James Smith’s story sets him up in the army and follows what he goes through on the front. This is also a direct contrast, as James points out, to Wickham, the handsome rogue we all know and hate from P&P. Wickham, whose commission was bought, has apparently never actually served in battle – he’s kept safe at home. But James has actually gone out, seen things, done things, that give him a pretty good reason to have a temper.
My main disappointment is that James’ story is short. It comes at the very end and doesn’t actually cover that many pages. I’m not saying I wanted the entire book to be about James, or that I wanted to learn his story sooner – it’s just that, when the rest of the book is pretty predictable and not all that exciting, I really enjoyed his bits and then it was all over.
So overall, making this a pretty short review in comparison to some of the others here, I enjoyed it and would recommend it to other Janeites, but maybe wait for paperback or the library. It’s not one I’m going to own to keep in my JA collection, but a good lightweight JA spinoff.