Here is my review of Longbourn by Jo Baker
Published in paperback by Black Swan January 2014
‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’
As much as I have always liked the sharp wit of Austen, I’ve always preferred the brooding darkness of Hardy. Of course, there’s no reason why you can’t like both sharp wit and brooding darkness, and so maybe this tension is what drew me in so completely to Longbourn.
Longbourn is the story of the servants of the Bennet family who we all know from Pride and Prejudice. This retelling of a classic novel, loved the world over, is not fan fiction or gimmicky. Instead, Longbourn offers us an alternative viewpoint of life in Austen’s England – a country built up on the proceeds of trading, slavery, and empire. A country full of poverty, cruelty, and drudgery.
Baker shows us the relentless hard work of life downstairs – the early starts, the fetching of slop buckets, the laundry of five young women. The chilblains, the raw hands, the lice. But more importantly she shows us that these barely mentioned servants of Austen’s original, they too have hopes and dreams. They too face an uncertain future as Mr Bennet has no legitimate male heir. They must impress Mr Collins with their housekeeping, cooking, laundering, cleaning, serving, butlering, footkeeping…
Most of the time we are in the viewpoint of the maidservant, Sarah. She has been in the Bennet household since she was orphaned aged six. She has a dry sense of humour though must keep these thoughts to herself as her status does not allow her to share opinions. Better not to have opinions. Better to keep your head down and learn the satisfaction of a job well done. But Sarah knows there are other worlds beyond the narrow one she inhabits. For Sarah is lent books from Elizabeth Bennet.
Mrs Hill – the cook and housekeeper – is like a mother to Sarah though she is tough from a lifetime of servitude. She also harbours a secret thatflips our view of the family upstairs and accounts for Mrs Bennet’s ‘nerves’. Mr Hill, the butler, is a gruff older man but even he is given a backstory that makes you grateful you were not alive at this time. The youngest member of this downstairs ‘family’ is Polly, another young girl who Sarah takes under her wing, allowing her moments of childhood where she can wander off and play.
And then enters the footman with a mysterious past, James Smith. I warmed to James, his gentleness and love of horses, the way he looks out for Sarah and Polly, the quiet taking on of chores, the tough life he has previously led. And this is where Longbourn becomes a creation in its own right and not a pastiche of Pride and Prejudice. When the characters are not confined within the village of Longbourn, when they are out in the wider world, we see the realities of what it was like during the Napoleonic Wars, when you were subject to your superiors, half-starving, beaten, flogged. When you had to survive on your wits.
Baker is in great control of her craft as a writer and reader. She uses Austen’s famous free indirect speech, to give us her characters’ thoughts. Like Austen with Lizzy, Baker’s main focus is on Sarah. But she too switches viewpoints from time to time to give us information that Sarah couldn’t know.When the narrative takes us away from the village of Longbourn, the writing too becomes altered. Freed from the confines of Austen’s style and the structure of the plot, Baker’s prose glitters and her narrative shocks. For me this is the triumph of Longbourn. It stirs things up and I will never read Pride and Prejudice again in the same way. And, although it is a novel I know well, I am grateful for that. I needed to see the underside of the Bennet girls’ lace petticoats, the muddy soles of their delicate shoes. I needed to see the hearts of those not allowed to choose a life for themselves, whether above or below stairs.
Austen somehow leaves me more troubled than Hardy, maybe because I know there is far more going on below the surface of her stories than she would, or could, show us. Baker does something magical with her love of Pride and Prejudice, in a way that should add to its longevity and without diffusing its power.
(And I think the ending is perhaps one of my favourites of all novels.)
This review first appeared on Serendipity Reviews on Thursday 6th February.