16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
A good idea gone wrong (spoilers in the last paragraph)
, 3 Mar. 2014
This review is from: Longbourn (Paperback)
I really wanted to like this book; I thought it was a good idea to tell the story of the Longbourn servants, showing how little their lives and concerns intersected with those of their employers. And there are some really good things in it. Even more than the note that Lizzy Bennet would have been less carefree about getting her petticoats muddy if she had had to scrub the mud out, I liked the point that in holding back the news of Mr Collins' visit till the day of his arrival just to surprise his family, Mr Bennet is quite uncaringly subjecting the servants not merely to a scramble of last-minute work but actual well-founded fear - Mr Collins will be the next owner of Longbourn, and they have only one chance to make a good enough first impression on him that he will keep them on in his employ and not turn them out.
But, some things just won't do. Jo Baker has obviously done loads of research into domestic life of the period and so she must certainly know that she has given the Bennets an impossibly small household of servants. It's canon that Mr Bennet has £2000 a year plus the interest of his wife' fortune; that they don't save any of it; that they keep a carriage and carriage horses plus at least one riding horse, they have a large garden including a fashionable 'wilderness' and they have coverts of game birds. A household of that size, with that kind of income, would have had - would have needed - at least eleven servants: Samuel and Sarah Adams' 'The Complete Servant', published only 12 years after P&P, states that the household of a gentleman with a family and an income of £1,500-£2000 would require 'A Cook, Housekeeper, two House-maids, Kitchen-Maid, and Nursery-Maid, or other female Servant; with a Coachman, Groom, Footman, Gardener, and an assistant in the Garden and Stable'. Instead, at the start of her book Baker has given the Bennets only a cook-housekeeper, two maids and one elderly manservant. That's only one maidservant more than the impoverished Dashwood ladies in Sense & Sensibility needed to run their poky cottage with 'dark narrow stairs, and a kitchen that smoked'! (And in real life, a smaller staff than Parson Woodford and his spinster niece needed in his Norfolk rectory, where they kept no carriage and sent their laundry to be done by a washerwoman, on his modest stipend of £300 a year.)
This matters, because if you're going to major on 'gritty reality', you simply have to keep it real. Yes, household work in the Regency era was hard and squalid in the extreme; but the below-stairs community of Longbourn wouldn't have been anything like as small and isolated as Baker writes it.
I do have other gripes. I've no objection(as some other reviewers seem to have) to Baker including references to sex such as JA couldn't have dreamed of discussing. However, I found the revelation of Mr Hill's love life unconvincing - not that a Regency servant couldn't have had such a love life, but the way the information was dumped on the reader as 'this is a plot point, take it or leave it' without any attempt to weave it into character. And I don't buy Wickham as a paedophile for a moment. It's canon, after all, that Wickham pursues grown-up girls for fun as well as profit, which real-life paedophiles very rarely do. (Nor, come to that, can I believe that any 12-year-old workhouse-reared Regency housemaid could possibly not have known what it meant when a gentleman told you he'd give you sweets if you 'were sweet to him'.) And Baker read two or three books on the Peninsular War but she simply hadn't made sense of the material, so the whole section dealing with James Smith's misfortunes as a soldier in the war in Spain is lamentable; it's full of errors and impossibilities.
It's very sad, because there was a good idea here, and I think Baker is talented enough as a writer to have made a better fist of it than she did.
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