It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah’s hands are chapped and bleeding. Domestic life below stairs, ruled tenderly and forcefully by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman smelling of the sea, and bearing secrets.
For in Georgian England, there is a world the young ladies in the drawing room will never know, a world of poverty, love, and brutal war.
Retelling a classic story from a new perspective or writing new stories that precede or follow them is a long-standing phenomenon. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is perhaps the most literary and lauded one, but other examples are Ronald Frame’s Havisham, Susan Hill’s Mrs De Winter, and Emma Tenant’s Pemberley. The latter is a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, the same source material which underlies Longbourn. While the experience of returning to the world of a beloved book through the eyes and voice of a different author can be disconcerting or disappointing, it can also be amazing. Interestingly, in my experience, it’s the stories that take a non-viewpoint character, or even just (almost invisible) background characters and tell their tale that often succeed, while those stories that are sequels to the main narrative are often rather hit-and-miss, probably due to the fact that each reader has their own version of how a story will – and should – go on. Longbourn is a narrative in former category; it is set almost entirely during the story told in Pride and Prejudice, but tells the story of the Bennet family’s servants. It’s a wonderful premise and while the gist of the story could have been told in its own setting with a different family, it’s rather a guilty pleasure to spot where in the narrative we are and seeing what the family is like when they are “off-camera” so to speak.
The focus of Longbourn‘s narrative lies with four of the Bennet’s servants: Mrs Hill, the long-suffering housekeeper, we already encountered in Pride and Prejudice, Sarah and Polly, the two maids, and James, the newly-hired footman. Rounding out the Longbourn servants’ roster is Mr Hill, an elderly gentleman who keeps Mr Bennet’s wine cellar stocked and generally functions as a butler. Baker presents the life of a servant without sugar-coating; these people work long hard days, dealing with often fickle and demanding employers, and are never quite sure whether they’ll be kept on come next Lady Day. Our main point of view character is Sarah, the eldest of the two maids, but still only a young woman. Orphaned at an early age, she was taken in by Mrs Hill from the poor house and raised to be in service. I like the fact that while she was raised to be a maid, Sarah still dreams of one day having more—not necessarily becoming a lady, but to have her own home and family. It’s no surprise then, that when the handsome James Smith is hired as a footman she becomes fascinated with him, even if she’s also rather enamoured with one of Mr Bingley’s footmen, Ptolemy, one of the slaves from Bingley Sr’s sugar plantation. It’s interesting to see Sarah struggling to find the balance between being safe and sure of continuing employment and what her heart desires.
There is more to this tale than just the downstairs mirroring of the upstairs romance however, there’s also the mystery of James’ history and where he came from, there’s Mrs Hill creating her own family by taking in orphans to train up. Baker moves beyond Longbourn and Meryton to show how the Napoleonic war affects the lower classes and how awful the life of the plain enlisted man was. We also follow Sarah along to Pemberley after Lizzie’s wedding to Darcy, were the differences between genteel households and their staff becomes painfully clear. At times it’s almost painful to see how invisible those downstairs are to the people living upstairs. There’s actually quite a bit of social commentary, as is only fitting in an Austenesque novel.
I adore Jane Austen, have read all her books, and in fact it was Pride and Prejudice that made me realise I wanted to study English at university, rather than civil engineering, which given the fact I don’t have a technical bone in my body might have been all to the good. So to retell her most beloved work from a new perspective and have me like it without any reservations, is quite a feat. Baker has most certainly done so and in the doing has reminded me just how much I love Pride and Prejudice. If you’re an Austen fan, this is definitely a must-read, but even if you’re not familiar with Austen and Pride and Prejudice or didn’t really enjoy her work, Longbourn is still a great novel to read, with a compelling story and romance.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.