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.
Austen has often been accused of ignoring the Napoleonic Wars, which raged throughout her adult life, but the soldiers and naval officers who appear throughout her work show that she was very much aware of them. She was also aware of the iniquities of slavery in British colonies, and Baker brings both these subjects into the foreground. Her depiction of the brutal realities of army life – a world away from the jolly officers of Austen’s novel – is particularly powerful. Indeed, a burning sense of injustice is palpable throughout the book, as Baker reminds us of the powerlessness of working men and women, their lives determined by the whims of their social superiors.
There's much more to Longbourn, though, than a lesson in social history. The novel offers a fresh but convincing view of familiar characters. The sisters are much as they appear in the book: Jane is slightly bland, Elizabeth witty and kind. But while the pompous Mr Collins may be a repellent prospect as a husband, he is kind and considerate to servants. Darcy appears as a figure so arrogant and lofty that Sarah feels invisible in his presence. The caddish Wickham is even more disturbingly predatory.
As for Mr and Mrs Bennet, it has long been pointed out that, in the original novel, the embarrassing Mrs Bennet is the only parent who makes a real effort to secure her daughters’ future; Mr Bennet hides in his library and makes quips. Baker expands on this, showing Mrs Bennet as a scared woman with a weakness for tonic wine. Baker also shows us an entirely new side of Mr Bennet, which rings heartbreakingly true.
None of this would be enough if the original characters weren’t equally compelling. The Longbourn servants are, in their own way, just as much a family as the Bennets, and they all come vividly to life, from the bossily maternal Mrs Hill and her ageing husband to the 12-year-old housemaid Polly and the enigmatic, troubled James.
But this is Sarah’s story, and she carries it well. Unlike Polly, who was a foundling, Sarah remembers what it was like to live with loving parents, and this gives her the ability, both painful and wonderful, to hope that she will experience real love again.
Indeed, Sarah’s story is so compelling that I kept forgetting that one of literature’s most famous love stories was happening upstairs.
Far from mere pastiche, Longbourn is a moving, gripping and unsentimental novel set in a brilliantly realised 19th-century world. It is also a reminder that in every age, including our own, there are lives lived outside the official narratives, stories that are never told, voices that are never heard.