A retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view was always an intriguing prospect. Add in the fact that this is a compelling novel in its own right and there’s no wonder there was such a buzz around Longbourn by Jo Baker when it first came out.
Yes, this is the book I’d been wanting to read for ages and snapped up in the library the other day.
‘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. (Paperback edition: Black Swan, 2014)
Like How to Host a Ball, it covers a lot of detail that Jane Austen and her readers would have taken for granted, but goes beyond that to really turn the shadowy figures of servants just hinted at or mentioned in passing into real human characters with thoughts, emotional lives and past histories of their own.
Like Death Comes to Pemberley, it invents back stories for the major characters as well as projecting forward into their futures, but unlike PD James, Jo Baker doesn’t attempt to imitate Jane Austen’s style – a very wise decision which helps the book stand up for itself and move beyond fan fiction or parody.
Sarah is a perfectly drawn figure and a perfect counterpoint to Elizabeth Bennet, having similar independence of mind without the privileges of a young lady, even as constricted as they were in those days. Baker also achieves quite a coup in making the reader feel an understanding and even sympathy for Mr Collins, Mrs Bennet and Mary. Mr Bennet comes out of it slightly less well.
The novel also deals with the realities of the slave trade – more than likely to be behind the wealth of the Bingley family as Baker makes it here – and of the Napoleonic wars, source of all those dashing red coats, and throwaway lines like “a private had been flogged”.
I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read, with emotional depth and a fascinating wealth of historical detail. It makes you care deeply about Sarah and James, and understand how much of an impact the thoughtlessness (however well intentioned) of those above stairs can have on the lives of those below.