'There could be no wearing of clothes without laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September.'
I liked the premise the opening sentence makes clear - seeing the events of Pride and Prejeudice from the point of view of the servants and gaining insight into the lives of the ordinary classes that Austen barely mentions. The novel opens well but is somewhat formulaic. It's as if Baker decided to make a list of what Jane Austen leaves out: war, politics, sex with overworked servants and then wrote a novel to address those. Clearly Austen didn't write state of the nation novels but her dialogue was great, her characters always believable, and her wit sparkling. Despite the current fashion of considering P&P to be chick lit, it is a sharply observed novel on one strata of society. It is pitch perfect. This novel strained my credulity - can you imagine Mr Collins having a chat about his choice of Bennet girl with a maid? For me, it added few new insights into Jane Austen's novel despite key references to slavery and fortunes made from sugar. Those are important issues, as were the difficulties of dismissed servants and I would have felt that more if Jo Baker had been able to simply concentrate on her own characters. I suppose that is the key point. A book like Wide Sargasso Sea (Penguin Modern Classics) casts new light back on our reading of Jane Eyre (Wordsworth Classics) and particularly its view of women and the exploitation of the colonies. I don't think this novel pulled that off - perhaps because it tried to pack too much in.
The strongest section is the first - a well imagined account of laundry day from the point of view of Sarah, the maid and main protagonist. 'If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them,' is a good example of where we gain a different view of Elizabeth Bennet's trampling over muddy fields to her sister. The drudgery that supports the lives of the Bennets is well described, as is the contrast with the much larger house of the Bingleys.
I think an important question is whether the novel could stand on its own without the link to the original. In my view it doesn't, despite some enjoyable passages. The ending of Longbourn departs entirely from Pride and Prejudice and is the weakest part of the novel. I suppose I should learn my lesson from this, and Death Comes to Pemberley, and leave this sub genre of Austen prequels, sequels and re-imaginings alone.
Having said that, I seem to be in the minority of the reviewers here.
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