If you hang around readers for very long, you begin to see a pattern. Most have read Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Many of those who have read it claim it is, not only their favorite Austen book, but on their list of favorite books of all time.
There have been a dearth of Jane Austen spin-offs, most of which have come on the heels of the very successful BBC adaptation in 1995 with the unforgettable Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. I, for one, freely admit that I loved “Pride and Prejudice” even more after that miniseries. Colin Firth will forever be Darcy to me.
It was no surprise to me that when I saw the novel “Longbourn” by Jo Baker, I was intrigued. The very name of the Bennet’s home caught my attention. It lingered on my “to be read” list until I was able to procure a copy from my library.
Ah! I am so glad I was able to read this book. It was a joy. First, though, a quick synopsis:
Baker’s “Longbourn” takes the reader below the stairs to explore the lives of the servants working in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their five daughters. The familiar Mrs. Hill and Mr. Hill are represented, but so are two young serving girls. Baker gives us their names, Sarah and Polly. Sarah serves as the main narrator, although there are various narrators throughout the book.
Just as Sarah begins to lament the lack of change or action in her tiny English town, a mysterious man arrives and becomes the footman at Longbourn. His arrival happens to coincide with the arrival of Mr. Bingley to Netherfield Park.
James Smith, the new footman, quickly becomes a source of both frustration and fascination for Sarah. He also has secrets, keeping him careful with whom he talks and how close he is willing to become with those at Longbourn.
If Austen used “Pride and Prejudice” to explore marriage, family, money and class then Baker uses “Longbourn” to take us even deeper into the topics. Baker takes us into places Austen may have been uncomfortable with and avoided. Every dish served, every dress cleaned and pressed, every message delivered was the work of someone. They are in the cracks and shadows, but they are there. This is where “Longbourn” really shines.
“The room was dull now, and meaningless, with the young ladies gone from it. They were both lovely, almost luminous. And Sarah was, she knew, as she slipped along the servants’ corridor, and then up the stairs to the attic to hang her new dress on the rail, just one of the many shadows that ebbed and tugged at the edges of the light.”
Not only are they there, but they know things about everyone in the home and the visitors. They are able to see the looks hidden from others, hear the words spoken out of ear shot and, are so ignored, they are witness to things others would never see.
It was these details which drew me into the book. There was Sarah’s observation of tufts of hair underneath Elizabeth Bennet’s arm, hygiene not being what it is today. Realizing that every time Lizzie walked through the mud in the fields Sarah would have to scrub the skirt clean; suddenly Lizzie’s habit wasn’t quite so charming. Then the detail Baker offers of how the home works from how meals are made to the cleaning of clothes and rooms.
There were bigger issues for Sarah, Polly, the Hlls and James. There were cracks in the society Austen showed us in “Pride and Prejudice”, cracks that Baker fully reveals in her novel.
Austen’s England is a country at war. Oh, we hear plenty about the regiment and those fine gentlemen in their red coats. Some young men, like the dastardly Wickham, purchase their commissions. If you have the money, then you can be stationed at Brighton and attend balls with lively young women. Those young men who came from no means, but wanted to serve the mighty England, were sent to rot on the continent during the war with France. Men returned from their time at war haunted and often crippled.
Marriage, and the security it offers, was a main theme in “Pride and Prejudice.” It wasn’t only the Bennet girls who were impacted by England’s entailment laws. The future of the servants at Longbourn rested solely on the shoulders of the future owners of the home. Sarah and Polly would not be guaranteed an income with their marriage. Any number of fates could bring uncertainty to their doorstep.
“Sarah, in the crush, was able to study Miss Lucas’s face discreetly, she wondered what it was like to know that you were to be married, that you would have a home, an income, that you were set up for life. To have achieved all this simply by agreeing to put up with one particular man until he died.”
Yet, even with all of the grit and reality Baker offers, there is a sweetness and light to this book. Sarah’s search for love and meaning in her life. Mrs. Hills’ love and tenderness for Mr. Hill, even in a marriage of convenience for both of them. James’ search for peace after experiencing things I could never fathom.
The bonus with “Longbourn”? Scenes where we learn more about how horrible Wickham can be. The secrets of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Learning a little more about where Mr. Bingley’s fortune originates. Scenes from the early days of Lizzie and Darcy’s marriage.
Baker delivers a sweet read in keeping with Austen’s original work, but offering an even more nuanced picture of life in regency England.