An irresistible retake on Pride and Prejudice alters the familiar perspective by foregrounding a different version of events—the servants’.
Daring to reconfigure what many would regard as literary perfection, Baker (The Undertow, 2012, etc.) comes at Jane Austen’s most celebrated novel from below stairs, offering a working-class view of the Bennet family of Longbourn House. While the familiar drama of Lizzie and Jane, Bingley and Darcy goes on in other, finer rooms, Baker’s focus is the kitchen and the stable and the harsh cycle of labor that keeps the household functioning. Cook Mrs. Hill rules the roost, and maids Sarah and Polly do much of the hard work, their interminable roster of chores diminished a little by the hiring of a manservant, James Smith. Sarah is attracted to James, but he is mysterious and withdrawn, and soon, her eye is caught by another—Bingley’s black footman, Ptolemy. James, though trapped in his secrets, has noticed Sarah too and steps in when she is on the verge of making an impulsive mistake. And so, the romance begins. Baker is at her best when touching on the minutiae of work, of interaction, of rural life. James’ back story, though capably done, offers less magic. But a last episode, moving through grief and silence into understated romantic restoration, showcases a softly piercing insight.
Sequels and prequels rarely add to the original, but Baker’s simple yet inspired reimagining does. It has best-seller stamped all over it.