by Jo Baker
From Goodreads: • 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.
With television shows like Downton Abbey and Victoria setting servants’ lives side by side with the glitz and glamour of the upper crust, we start to get a taste of what life must have been like for those who lived belowstairs and answered to every whim of the people they served. And while the servants of Downton are well-regarded and cared for by their ultra-wealthy employers, they don’t really show what life was really like for the serving class. Especially for those who weren’t part of a massive household staff.
With her novel Longbourn, Jo Baker tells the story of the servants of the middle class, fleshing out their lives, struggles, and relationship to their employers, in this case, the Bennet family of Pride and Prejudice.
The story opens with the serving girl, Sarah, who cleans up after the family- clearing and washing the dishes, the laundry, drawing the household’s water for the day, getting the Bennet sisters dressed and ready for the various balls, washing diapers when guests bring their infants with them, sweeping the yard, and on and on and on until her hands are cracked and bleeding from the days’ work and all she can look forward to at night is another eighteen hour day tomorrow. For a young woman no older than Elizabeth Bennet, it’s a hard reality to live with, but she begrudgingly accepts it. The Bennet girls are, after all, of a higher class than she is. And Jane and Elizabeth in particular are so pretty and sweet that the high class marriages they aspire to seem to be the just rewards for their beauty and temperament.
This isn’t to say that Sarah doesn’t resent the Bennet family for being careless with their posessions. Miss Elizabeth might be famous for having a hem six inches deep in mud, but she never had to clean it up.
This isn’t to say that Sarah’s life is nothing but drudgery, for even servants have complex lives. Even the lower classes can fall in love and make mistakes, as Sarah finds out when new people arrive at Longbourn- primarily a new footman and a dashing servant from the Bingley household.
The story of Longbourn sits next to that of Pride and Prejudice, and to a degree mirrors the events of its famous cousin. Sarah must deal with her own pride and prejudice in regards to the new men in her life, and discovers that first impressions aren’t always correct. Like Elizabeth, she dreams of a world beyond Longbourn and wonders if she will ever find happiness in a world designed to deny such a thing to a mere woman. But Pride and Prejudice is not an exact map for Longbourn, and this is one of its strengths. Elizabeth Bennet might be able to wait for her love to come find her at home, but Sarah does not have the same luxury. To find her own love, she must forge her own path and discovers that happiness can be found in the place she least expects it.
While the characters of Pride and Prejudice do appear in Longbourn, it is mostly from a distance. Mister Bingley and Mister Darcy are glimpsed through windows; Mrs. Bennet is a cluster of nerves to be soothed and then escaped from; Charlotte Lucas is given lemon tarts to remind her that she has always liked Mrs. Hill’s cooking. Elizabeth is seen more often, as Sarah helps her prepare for the Netherfield Ball, but even these scenes are brief. Sure, Elizabeth likes Sarah as a servant, but she is only a servant after all, and not a friend. The perfidious Mr. Wickham appears the most- and is even more dastardly for it- until one wonders if, had anyone had bothered to ask the servants’ opinions of the man, Lydia would have nearly ruined herself and the family over him.
I once read an unfavorable critique of Jane Austen’s work because she never dealt with the fact of the many wars that were going on during her characters’ lives. This was an unfair criticism, because Pride and Prejudice and its fellow novels weren’t meant to encompass every issue Austen might have had with English society. They were comedies that sharply poked at the notions that A) women were silly creatures with no thoughts in their heads, and B) a woman’s desperation to get married stemmed not from her ridiculous nature, but the need to secure her future lest she end up on the streets.
Longbourn meets those darker issues of 19th century life head on. Austen’s London is a glamorous place of wealthy men and fancy balls. Baker’s London is place of stink and filth full of idle children and men who put their hands up skirts. The countryside is full of mud and pigs, but at least it’s pleasant in the spring and summer. The militia- so bright and dashing in Pride and Prejudice– presses young men into near slavery and commits atrocities in foreign countries
I saw a little review online stating that Longbourn is a Marxist reading of Pride and Prejudice, and I think it is. To a degree. But while it deals with the stinking, gritty aspects of nineteenth century life, it is not without its beauty and charms. Baker balances these aspects with grace, granting human frailty to all of its characters.
While it doesn’t have the sweeping romance and the prospect of a man with ten thousand a year, I think that Longbourn is a fitting companion to Pride and Prejudice. It fills in the lives of people who barely receive a mention in the Bennets’ story while giving us a glimpse of what living in Regency England might really have been like, mud and pigs and all.