It’s strange that I don’t really read a lot of the perspective retellings, because I find the idea of the perspective flip of a classic novel or story fascinating; I just…haven’t read that many. (I haven’t read Wide Sargasso Sea. To be fair, I only read Jane Eyre a few years ago and I didn’t love it, so…yeah. *hides*) And I’ve mentioned before about my feelings towards Pride & Prejudice, particularly considering the umpteenth upon umpteenth adaptation/retelling/reworking/update. So, this was something that really caught my eye. A retelling of Pride & Prejudice but from the servants’ perspective and Lizzie and Darcy aren’t really major characters? GIVE IT TO ME.
I will give the book this: the book doesn’t really linger on the events of the original novel until Lydia’s elopement with Wickham and does focus on the lives of the servants. Which I did like. However, Sarah is a very bland character, the book’s layout is very disjointed and I have issues with the shoehorning of representation in here. Not to mention, the class divide isn’t as widely explored aside from a complete derailing of a canon character and a few throwaway lines.
The lack of exploration of the class divide is what really disappointed me with this book. There were several food riots at the time, famines, crop failures, privatization of land and debtors’ prisons. Even being a servant in a household, while being more comfortable, wasn’t a guarantee. (Which is touched on in here after Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins.) But we don’t get to see that divide at all. Especially since one of the main characters is the adopted son of a farming family, but there’s really nothing. When Sarah says she wants to leave Pemberly and Lizzie’s service, I’m fully on Lizzie’s side because Sarah’s giving up a good job for really stupid reasons.
I really can’t get with Sarah. The beginning of the book when she’s musing on doing her chores was really good and I liked it. (Okay, this is normally something I hate in a lot of these books, but I did like Sarah mentally snarking about “Oh, if Lizzie Bennet had to wash her own petticoats she wouldn’t go traipsing through the mud.”) But as time goes on, I liked her less and less—there’s really nothing to her. Sarah talks about how she wants more from her provincial servant’s life, but it’s never specified what she wants. (And this is keeping in mind the limitations on her and her position in society.) I get that she wants to marry well and that she doesn’t want to be a servant for the Bennets forever…but once James comes on the scene, it’s nothing but “Oh, he is so ~mysterious~ and handsome and dangerous.”
To tangent here: representation in historical novels. I am all for this, except when it feels like “Oh, well, we need this because LOOK THERE WERE BLACK AND GAY PEOPLE IN REGENCY ENGLAND, DID YOU KNOW THAT.” (Uh. Yeah.) I bring this up largely because of Ptolemy Bingley, who is a black manservant at Netherfield and has a thing for Sarah. And I was really disappointed with it, because exploring an interracial relationship in the Regency period and in the lower classes would have been fascinating and interesting and you can talk about the social mores and no, let’s have Sarah moon over the mysterious bad boy footman. And nearly every time someone talks about Ptolemy, it’s basically “OH HE’S BLACK. WHAT WOULD THE NEIGHBORHOOD SAY.”
James is the worst part of this book. His characterization isn’t that bad—especially since he is cast as the mysterious handsome man with a dark and dangerous past—but there’s nothing for me to see why he’s here in the first place. His own personal story is to talk about how war is hell and that the militia officers like Wickham or Darcy wouldn’t really experience the horrible aspect of fighting the French. Which, again, I would be fine with…if the book didn’t grind to a halt in the last third to do the backstory dance. It could have better integrated into the bulk of the book itself, and having the massive infodump towards the end is irritating to me.
The other thing that I don’t like about the massive third act infodump is the reveal of James’ background: he’s the illegitimate son of Mrs. Hill. And Mr. Bennet. And it’s inferred that Mrs. Hill became the Bennets’ housemaid just to see Mr. Bennet all the time and how much she hates Mrs. Bennet and the fact that they never had a legitimate son is punishment for abandoning Mrs. Hill.
*tears hair out*
It’s a stupid reveal, I’m sorry. Why would Mr. Bennet acknowledge the fact—even to Mrs. Hill—that his son is hanging around the household and that he has an obligation to James to watch out for him? The whole conflict of the end of the book is about scandal brought to the family; why is his illegitimate son hanging around? Even more, egregious is that James doesn’t know who his real parents are, but he wants to work for Mr. Bennet because “Oh, he was nice to me when I was a boy!”
Exploring different sides to famous literary characters can be interesting, if it makes sense and it’s really well done. This just feels like “Oh, well, Mr. Bennet is the more sensible of the two and he probably doesn’t love Mrs. Bennet so let’s give him the complex backstory.” Except…I don’t like this backstory. I don’t.
(Oh, and btw, in case you forgot that Mr. Wickham is a horrible, evil person, he’s a legit pedophile to boot in here.)
The writing itself isn’t horrible, and again, I really like the premise. But we never get a full exploration of the class divide aside from a few scenes, and there’s so many things in here that could make this a really interesting book. (Again, I loved the fact that Sarah nearly goes for Ptolemy, and then she ends up going with Broody FitzBastard.) Even though it’s not what I was dreading with a blow-by-blow recount of the original book, the missed opportunities are really glaring.