The hardest reviews to write are the ones wherein you're attempting to articulate a feeling of decided “Meh.” I am meh about this book. I was continually curious about the history even while I was horrified by how difficult and painful the work was. I am one of those who really likes Pride & Prejudice and an account of the same time period of the story from the perspective of the servants belowstairs sounded so interesting.
If you're expecting the P&P story to be told from the belowstairs perspective, though, you'll be disappointed. The events of P&P, such as Lydia's disgrace, Jane's engagement, and Elizabeth's eventual marriage are in the book, but they're distant and secondary to the story of Sarah, one of the two maids in the household. Mrs. Hill is the housekeeper and cook, and Sarah and Polly are the young women, both orphans, who work and live at Longbourn caring for the family. Mrs. Hill is marred (to Mr. Hill, obviously) and Sarah and Polly share a bed high in the attic servants' quarters. The story focuses on Sarah and her life, and her feelings and experiences as she does the day-to-day holy crap exhausting work of caring for a household.
The story is told in three “volumes,” and takes place over the period of time in the original story, plus a little extra. If you love P&P, you'll probably really enjoy this alternate perspective, but you will come out of the experience likely despising Mr. Bennet. In this novel, his story is expended substantially, and not in a good way.
The alternate perspectives are illuminating even when what the reader learns is rather ghastly. The servants worry about the future of Longbourn and their lives there, as much if not more than the Bennets. The marriage of Mr. Collins to Charlotte Lucas is accepted as a favorable outcome, especially by Mrs. Hill, who, though gruff and firm, worries about Sarah and Polly and their futures, knowing that she and Longbourn are their safety in the world (which is not kind to unmarried women out on their own). But beyond that, everything that's charming about Elizabeth, for example, is horrible for the servants. Her habit of wandering around and getting her hem soaked in mud is exhausting for the household, because Sarah and Polly have to try to boil and scrub the stains out of her dresses and petticoats. The arrival of Mr. Collins is dreaded by the servants because that's another person whose care and comfort rest on the staff, with the additional pressure of making sure everything is perfect for him so they, the household staff, make a positive impression on their future master.
Mrs. Gardiner's leaving her children with the Bennets and taking Elizabeth is equally exhausting, and neither character is portrayed as winningly as they were in the original. By far the most anger and spite is directed at Lydia, whose dirty clothing Mrs. Hill has to wash after her return from her hasty marriage. Wickham is worse than the original, in a creepy and awful sort of way, and Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingeley are so austere and important, Sarah feels invisible when they're around. As a result, Darcy and Bingeley might as well have been invisible in the story.
There are some broad parallels to the original text, too: one possible suitor is not what he seems, and Sarah does not realize this until nearly too late. Other people around her suspect the true nature of that person's character, much as others know the truth about Wickham and don't reveal it in the original.
The below stairs plot introduces a few new characters, such as James Smith, a young man who is hired as a footman, and whose history is somewhat mysterious. The third volume of the story is an enormous infodump retelling of his history, and I felt as if the book were saying, “Ok, here is why you should have lots of sympathy for James, and this and this too and this and this happened and then this and also this happened and oh, my gosh, his life was hard. CAAAAAAAAN YOU FEEEEEEEEL THE SYMPATHYYYYY?”
The problem was, I already had sympathy for him. By the time I understood the entirety of his life and backstory and how they were so painful and awful, I was left with all the grief and misery. The ending brought Sarah and James together so close to the ending, it was too little and far too late.
My conclusions from this book:
1. It sucked being a household servant at that time. It was exhausting, wearying, dirty, disgusting never-ending work. This is not news, but when the bulk of the story is made up of Sarah's routine and never-finished duties and the painful backstory of James, Mrs. Hill, and the others, happiness seems a long and impossible way off, which I suppose is how they would have felt. It made the happy ending less happy, though. This is not a happy-sigh kind of book
2. The happy ending is minimal, as I said.
3. Mr. Bennet is a horrible human being in this story.
4. There is no justice or balance of circumstance in the narrative to take the sting out of the reality of the servants' circumstances. For many of them, happiness is not an option. It's painful realism.
5. I'll be honest: I didn't understand the ending at all. Were they safe? Did they have a place to be? Or were they going to be transient and unsafe forever? It was unsettling. If that was where the story ended, what was the point of everything that happened before? (I realize this makes no sense but hey, if you've read it and can explain the ending, I'd be happy to hear your take on it.)
6. This book is filled with all the unappealing and unattractive parts of life at that time. The description of the smells alone made me a little queasy. It's unflinching in its details, and that won't appeal to everyone.
And that's where I felt the book fell short. The details were numerous – the scene where Sarah makes soap out of a dead sow's fat is both fascinating and repelling – but the characters didn't measure up to the richness of detail.
If a degree of interest is presumed in the reader due to this being a P&P retelling, that's fair. But I needed additional characters of interest to read about, not just characters of exhaustion (Sarah and everyone else) and mystery (James, Mrs. Hill) to keep me interested. At times I felt the characters, especially Sarah, were vehicles to demonstrate that Servants At That Time Had A Hard Life, and Here Are More Details About That. She was too often a vehicle to illustrate the time, and not a character in her own right. When she was a character, any growth she might have experienced in her own narrative was cut short by something from the original P&P. This was more a story about the life of the servants than about the servants themselves, and as a result was less satisfying for me. In this book, I found a lot of historical facts and experiences, but I didn't read a full story of characters, and I missed that part most.