I think this blog has established that I’m a fan of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I’ve read it multiple times, as well as some of the books that it’s inspired in recent years (see here, and here). So when I saw my latest read at Chapters, I was intrigued. Longbourn, by Jo Baker, tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view; think Downton Abbey meets Austen.
Longbourn is, principally, the story of three of the domestic staff of the Bennett family; Mrs. Hill the cook/housekeeper, Sarah the first housemaid, and John Smith the footman (who Baker notes is introduced once in the original text as the deliverer of a message to Jane from Bingley). From the small crumbs of the staff that Austen sprinkled through her great homage to Georgian domesticity, Baker created a complementary plot and back stories for these almost invisible, and yet incredibly crucial, people in the Bennett household.
When I picked up this book, I thought of it as simply an interesting way to tell the love story that is so well known to me. However, I quickly realized this wasn’t Baker’s purpose. I’ll give you an example of what I mean; one of the most indelible moments in Elizabeth and Darcy’s love story is when she appears at Netherfield Hall with her petticoats with at least six inches of mud running up the hem. It’s at that moment that Darcy recognizes
’s vitality and kindness, and starts to fall in love with her. That’s all well and good, but what about those petticoats?! For a family with five girls on a limited income, they can’t just be replaced! Oh no, it’s Sarah’s job, with her cracked and rough hands and the homemade lye soap she boiled, to make them wearable again. Elizabeth
And the hits keep coming! Kind, considerate Jane? Barely notices Sarah or has a care for James’ role in the household. The kind and gregarious Bingley? He becomes a lot less desirable as a husband when you realize that his fortune, so coveted by the mamas of Merriton, comes from the sugar/slave trade. And Mr. Bennett, in not wanting to hear his wife complain about Mr. Collins’ arrival doesn’t tell her about it until the morning of the day he’s expected; great for him, but what about Mrs. Hill? She’s got to get a guest room ready, and then feed the man who will eventually decide her fate at Longbourn – Mr. Bennett left her no time to prepare! In Baker’s telling of the story, the Bennetts sit on the periphery of the lives that those below-stairs are living; their actions necessarily dictate what the staff do day-to-day, but they and their concerns are removed from the personal live and concerns of the staff. It’s an interesting dynamic.
Plot is one thing, but what about the characters and writing style? Baker gave herself the task of creating characters and plots that run in the background of one of the most beloved pieces of English literature. And she did a great job. It’s clear Baker lived with Austen’s works for years, as her history is spot on and her character profiles match what you would expect for an early 19th century household staff. Mrs. Hill, Sarah and James, who trade the focus of the narration between them, are all dynamic characters with back stories that are fleshed out, believable, and which make them into engaging characters. And Baker’s talent isn’t limited to the characters. Her writing style also reflects a great comfort and familiarity with the world of Austen; her tone, pace and tenor match with Austen’s almost pitch perfectly. It’s almost as is Pride and Prejudice and Longbourn could be considered to be parts one and two of the same story, written by the same author.
So, final verdict? In a world that is increasingly being bombarded with works of fiction inspired by Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn seems to be a wonderful addition to the pack. Leave aside your stories about Darcy, or Miss Darcy, or the married Mrs. Darcy, and instead focus your attention on those whose lives are lived to make the genteel and matrimonially-obsessed characters of Austen’s works possible. I would definitely recommend this book to Austen fans out there.