Book Review: Longbourn
Published by Black Swan
‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’
It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah’s hands are chapped and raw. Domestic life below stairs, ruled with a tender heart and an iron will by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman, bearing secrets and the scent of the sea.
If you have ever read Pride and Prejudice, or even watched any of its countless TV and film adaptations, then the name Longbourn will be familiar to you.
Longbourn is the story of Pride and Prejudice, but this time from below-stairs. We know by now how P&P plays out, we know the characters and their outcomes through and through. But nary a thought is given to the servants – the staff that allow the Bennets and the Bingleys and the Darcys to rush about full of intrigue whilst the housework still gets done.
Now, when the book is described as “A reimagining of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants” (Guardian), that is not strictly accurate. Yes, the goings-on of Jane Austen’s novel are happening, but these are mere background music for Sarah, Polly, Mr and Mrs Hill and James in the kitchen of Longbourn House. What is so delightful about this novel is that it doesn’t hinge on the Bennets and Darcy at all, but stands all on its own, chin up and proud.
As for the tale itself, it was beautifully done. The characters are vivid and certain, and Baker’s subtle notation of historical accuracy is one to admire – down to the strewn tea leaves for sweeping. Love interests James and Ptolemy dangle perilously close to Darcy and Wickham territory, and Sarah’s spirit is an echo of Elizabeth’s, but they are all rightfully in their place within the novel, and they only teeter briefly, more as a reflection of the above-stairs counterparts than a remake. There is also a darker underpinning of this story in comparison to Jane Austen’s novel. Perhaps with the turn of the times we can be bolder in our storytelling, but Baker doesn’t shy from the grit and grim reality of 19th Century existence – whether that is the gory details of a wash day or a battle.
The best way to describe this novel is like pulling on an elastic band – the long stretch out, and the short, sharp release and snap back to the finish. For over 300 pages, we dawdle around Longbourn with Sarah and team, watching the days and seasons trickle by. And then, all of a sudden, we are rushed through the final stories with a quick summing up and not much time for pause. I couldn’t help but feel the ending could have been pored over a little more – slowed down and enjoyed as much as the rest of the book. Just because it wasn’t a particularly fast paced tale to begin with, doesn’t mean this was a bad thing. It was almost as if we were rushed to a “happily ever after” just in case we were worried that it might not turn out that way.
But in fact, it is only the speedy ending that felt like a let-down for me. I was absolutely addicted to this book, and read it rapturously from beginning to end. And anyway, I’ve never been a big fan of happily-ever-after as it is, so I’m unfairly biased.
This is not a bodice-ripping yarn, a rip-roaring tale, a swashbuckler, or anything else that you might think of books set in the era. It is rather more like its upstairs counterpart – calm and civil, and yet brimming with emotion and humanity. Baker is a fabulous writer, knowing just when to make a point, and just when to let it flow. She doesn’t hammer it home, but rather takes you on a journey – as if she’s linking arms with you and going on a turn about the garden to share some news. This is my favourite kind of storytelling, and Baker does it with huge skill, without stamping a writerly signature over everything and simply letting the characters lead the way.
If Jane Austen looked through the magnifying glass at society for Pride and Prejudice, it feels like Jo Baker takes on the part of the ant beneath it – ready to tell their side.