“Next door, down the step into the scullery, Sarah leaned over the washboard, rubbing at a stained hem. The petticoat had been three inches deep in mud when she’d retrieved it from the girls bedroom floor… if Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats… she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.”
– Jo Baker, Longbourn
In my experience, it is quite rare to come across a reader who doesn’t love, or at least feel some kind of fondness for Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It is a classic that has reached cult-like adoration worldwide. Knocking poor Prince Charming from his post, Mr Darcy has become the ideal partner to single girls everywhere and Elizabeth Bennet the ideal for independence, intelligence and charming wit. Austen’s beloved story has inspired many re-imagined tales that could be seen as brave, foolish or sacrilegious… depending on your point of view. Longbourn by Jo Baker is neither a prequel or sequel but rather a simultaneous story into the lives of those behind the scenes.
Set in the servant’s hall at Longbourn, Baker has imagined the lives of the domestic staff keeping the respected but run-down property of the Bennet family up and running. Baker’s story is extremely well researched (without being overbearing with its information) and she does not shy away from revealing the extensive, exhausting and filthy work required to maintain a 19th century household. It is a sobering perspective to be privy to. Although the Bennets are seen to be kinder than most to their household staff, there are some lines that are never crossed.
Longbourn follows the lives of Sarah, one of the housemaids, Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper and James, the young footman. Baker has woven together a lovely panorama of their lives, with changing perspectives from the three main characters. Each one has a past and a future and their stories are eerily similar to their upstairs counterparts. Sarah is very like Elizabeth, who sees more in her future than keeping house for someone else. She is intelligent and bookish and the reader is instantly drawn to her. Baker’s evocative writing is teeming with powerful descriptions, a strong regard for emotion and a keen sense of the natural world.
When I first picked Longbourn up in a bookstore, I was kind of hoping for some gossip regarding the well-known characters of Pride and Prejudice. However, Baker’s servants have little regard for the lives of those they work for. Austen’s characters flit in and out of the story and Baker has very cleverly mapped her story to follow Austen’s. Baker’s characters are so vivid on their own that you forget about the Bennet family dramas and instead, find yourself wholly focused on the secrets and dramas of the Longbourn staff. It is a charming book to read and one of the best re-imagined versions I have read!