12 March 2014
• Pride and Prejudice was only half the story •
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.
Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.
The servants are never mentioned in period literature except when absolutely necessary. They were a bit like the wallpaper - always there but meant to be seen not heard. Which is why Jo Baker's Longbourn caught my eye - not only a great way to write Pride and Prejudice fiction in a way that hasn't been done before but it also contained a great deal of research about what life was like for the servants of landed gentry. Our protagonist at the outset is Sarah, one of the maids-of-all-work for the Bennets. She fetches water for washing and laundry, scrubs the dishes and the furniture, helps with the cooking, and plays ladies' maid as needed to the five Bennet daughters. She is up well before dawn and does not go to bed until after the family has retired. Her hands are permanently cracked, dry, and blistered with chilblains. It is not an easy life but one that comes with solid meals and a roof, and security especially if Mrs. Hill and the staff impress Mr. Collins so that he might keep them on after Mr. Bennet passes.
The plot dovetails with Austen's original in many ways, even to the point of providing Sarah with the choice of two beaus: James, the new footman, and Ptolemy Bingley, a biracial servant with the Bingleys who has entrepreneurial aspirations. Backstories provided for Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and Mr. and Mrs. Hill create a more tangled set of relationships than Austen would have ever revealed on her bit of ivory. I think someone not familiar with Pride and Prejudice would enjoy this novel, especially if exploring upstairs-downstairs fiction that has become more popular since Downton Abbey began airing. I'm probably not the best judge because I own eight copies of P&P and have read it so many times I've lost count.
Austenesque-plot aside, the whole thing was going swimmingly until two things kicked it out of kilter. The first was a confrontation between James and Wickham and that fallout (I did enjoy how Baker carries Wickham's behavior to a logical place given his predilections); the second, and more troubling, issue came after the Bingley-Bennet/Darcy-Bennet double wedding. Lizzie takes Sarah with her as her lady's maid and after some kvetching from Sarah about how she's possibly going soft from less work and worry about [spoiler] she resigns her position to go searching for [spoiler]. I'm not sure the point of all the wandering about for years and extended "epilogue"-ness of those last pages (it extends decades into the future beyond P&P and even, i think, beyond the actual concluding action of Longbourn. Although it all seemed very much about agency and freedom and free will, I don't know why it had to take so long and it took away from the end of the book.
Ending aside, Longbourn is an excellent addition to the Austen fanfic-rewrite-reimagining genre. Definitely a great book for fans of Pride and Prejudice as well as those who like good historical research into the everyday nitty-gritty.