The one on Elizabeth Bennet’s dirty petticoats

Jo Baker, Longbourn (2013)

If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.

This quote practically sold the book to me. It’s one of those books I enjoyed more in theory than in practice: to give a voice and a life to the servants who shadow the main characters of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

I am normally wary of Jane Austen’s spinoffs, sequels and alternate versions, although I can’t help but be aware of them all, and aware that I am merely part of the target audience for some marketing executives who think that everything Austen turns into gold.

The premises of this particular novel seemed really worth reading: in Austen’s world, the gentlemen and women, and here particularly the Bennet’s daughters live as if meals were cooked, clothes washed, estates run by themselves. The problem of money (which requires to marry well) is in everybody’s mind but they still live a rather privileged life, attended in their every need by several servants. If you turn the tables, you can see that this lifestyle is made possible by a handful of people who work from dawn to night, for which a new guest means longer work hours making sure that the dresses are cleaned and that the fancy meals are served on time.

I was eager to read a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, but Jo Baker wanted Sarah, the housemaid, to be the real focus of the story. The Bennet sisters only get briefly into the pictures before going back to their balls, which is not bad per se, and certainly realistic in the downstairs worldview, just that I wasn’t really into Sarah at the beginning (she kind of grew on by the end), and I certainly wasn’t into her love interest. I didn’t care for his back story at all, especially when we get to leave Longbourn to trail along Napoleonic wars in Europe. And there were times when I scoffed at the startlingly modern ideas that Sarah suddenly seemed to develop on individualism, equality and choosing one’s own fate.

[Spoiler alert] There was this line at the end that I both enjoyed and hated for its anachronism, when Sarah leaves Elizabeth Bennet’s service. The mistress briefly wonders why and how one can imagine leaving the life in a big estate. Sarah just can decide to pick up her things and go find a job elsewhere, a freedom that her mistress doesn’t have. But to me this freedom was clearly theoretical and not true to the period.

This all makes you probably think that I didn’t enjoy the book at all: on the contrary! It was fun, meticulously researched and I do love insight about daily life in historical periods! It just feels a bit forced to back a perfectly honest story on such a big name as Pride and Prejudice. Sarah could have been another Regency estate’s housemaid and it wouldn’t have made any difference to me. To marketers, I guess, that’s a whole different story.

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6 thoughts on “The one on Elizabeth Bennet’s dirty petticoats

  1. Interesting. This is one I’ve had on my TBR for some time now. It seems like one I’d enjoy very much, since I adore Austen and enjoy historical fiction in general. (Like you, however, I am pretty wary of Austen sequels.) But your comment about the novel not feeling particularly related to Pride and Prejudice is a thought-provoking one. I hope I get around to this one next year!

  2. I love how you title your posts! I’ve heard good things about this one and now add you to the list, but I unfortunately have had too many other books forcing themselves upon me to have gotten to this one. Perhaps one day.

  3. I get frustrated when authors of historical fiction have done all the research on their period, but they still have their heroines have entirely modern views on things that would be important to modern readers. Someone christened such heroines “Excepto-Girls,” which I thought was an excellent coinage!

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