Quick question – can you give me the name of a single servant in Pride and Prejudice? Despite having read the book multiple times and having just finished the audio version of the book, I certainly couldn’t do it. Jo Baker has taken the classic novel and imagined what the lives of the invisible people behind the scenes, so to speak. The very essential people who wash the mud out of Lizzie’s petticoats after she’s been walking the countryside, who help the Bennett sisters do their hair, make the beds, empty the chamber pots, sweep the floors, cook the food, tend the horses, open the doors, run errands no matter the state of the weather, carry messages back and forth and make life so much easier for the main cast of Pride and Prejudice.
There’s the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill; her husband, the butler; the maids Sarah and Mary (who because the middle daughter of the family is also a Mary is forever called Polly instead). There’s also the mysterious and newly hired footman, James. Their lives’ work is to make things as comfortable and effortless for the family they serve, but they have hopes and dreams and pasts of their own. Sarah, orphaned at an early age and taken into the household after a stay in the poor house, especially dreams of travelling and seeing the country, not content to be a servant her entire life. She’s suspicious of James, the ruffian who showed up from nowhere and was suddenly hired on as a footman. All the other servants seem to adore him, and Mrs. Hill dotes on him, but Sarah’s sure he’s lying about his past and is determined to figure out what he’s hiding. Both James and Mrs. Hill are concerned when Sarah seems to form an attachment with one of Mr. Bingley’s handsome and exotically dark-skinned footmen.
The servants, like everyone else, hope the elder Bennett sisters will make good matches, and worry when Lizzie spurns Mr. Collins, who after all will be their new master at some point in the future. They all think it would have been easier if he married a Bennett daughter, but can see he should have set his sights on Miss Mary, who was a much more suitable match for him.
While the Bennett women and all their acquaintances seem charmed by the dashing Mr. Wickham, the servants are not so easily fooled by his looks and easy charm. They recognise a predator when they see one and when he shows a very worrying interest in little Polly, James forgets all his hard-earned instincts to keep his head down and steps in to protect her. Wickham shows just how dangerous he can be and causes great upheaval in the household. Both Sarah and Mrs. Hill are shattered by the aftermath.