Longbourn, by Jo Baker
Reviewed by Anna Carey
One of my favourites scenes in Pride and Prejudice has always been Elizabeth Bennet’s arrival at Netherfield to see her sick sister Jane. Having tramped across the muddy fields, she arrives “with weary ankles, dirty stockings and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise”. Mr Bingley’s sisters are horrified (“I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud,” says one), but Darcy (and the reader) is charmed by her vivacity and lack of affectation.
The image of those dirty stockings and that muddy petticoat always made Elizabeth seem like a real person to me. I never thought about who would have to wash the clothes afterwards.
“If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats,” thinks Sarah, the heroine of Jo Baker’s impressively assured debut novel, Longbourn, “she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.” Sarah is one of the two housemaids who work at Longbourn, the Bennets’ family home, under the guidance of the housekeeper Mrs Hill.
These servants are merely hinted at in Pride and Prejudice, but here they take centre stage. While Mrs Bennet frets over her daughters, while Jane pines for Bingley and Elizabeth flirts with Wickham and falls for Darcy, while Lydia runs away with a dangerously inappropriate man, their servants are also struggling with issues of love, propriety and financial independence. They just have to rise before dawn to make the breakfast and empty brimming chamber pots as well.
Longbourn is, essentially, Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view, but it’s much more than yet another Jane Austen spin-off. People have been producing Austen homages and pastiches for more than a century, but the past 20 years have seen an explosion of writers extending or adapting her most famous story, from PD James’s Death Comes to Pemberley to Seth Grahame-Smith’s horror mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
But Longbourn is that rare spin-off that works equally well as a novel in its own right.
Baker doesn’t try to emulate Austen’s style (though some familiar lines of dialogue are woven seamlessly into her text). And although it’s fun to see the Bennets’ story from their servants’ perspective, their lives are merely the backdrop to the compelling story of Sarah and her fellow workers.
Intelligent, determined and fond of reading, Sarah bears a slight resemblance to Elizabeth Bennet, and in some ways the Longbourn servants’ lives parallel those of their masters. Mrs Hill is just as worried about Mr Collins inheriting Longbourn as Mrs Bennet is, for a new master may want new staff. And, like Elizabeth, Sarah is drawn to two men, though neither is a Wickhamesque cad.
There’s Ptolemy Bingley, the handsome and ambitious mixed-race footman who was born to a slave on the Bingley family’s West Indian estates (and, it is strongly hinted, is Mr Bingley’s half-brother), and there’s James Smith, Longbourn’s new footman with a mysterious past that is revealed over the course of the book.