Longbourn: A Novel
- By Jo Baker
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
- November 1, 2013
The Bennets take a backseat to their servants in this homage to Pride and Prejudice.
Will we ever get enough of Jane Austen or Pride and Prejudice? Few novels have inspired the industry of sequels, pastiches, films and TV adaptations this one has. Writers over the years from Julia Barrett to P.D. James have embroidered on and reimagined its characters, and this year marks the novel’s 200th anniversary. With Longbourn, named for the Bennet house near the fictional village Meryton, novelist Jo Baker commemorates this anniversary by introducing a whole new cast of characters: the servants. The main character is housemaid Sarah, who washes out the family linens, sweeps and scrubs the floors, empties out the chamber pots, and wonders how the mysterious new footman James Smith might factor in her life.
While serving at social functions, Sarah notices how the Bennet sisters interact with men. But life belowstairs is so entirely separate from the lives of the Bennets, Bingleys and Darcys, and her concerns so very different. It seems strange to Sarah that, during the Napoleonic wars, an able-bodied man such as James Smith should be working at Longbourn as a footman. Where does he come from? Can he be trusted? The examples of Sarah’s employers and their circle don’t help her with her own love interest. In fact, key interactions from Pride and Prejudice only have casual impact in Longbourn, if at all.
That’s because although they have aspirations, disappointments and problems, the servants never stop working. They don’t have time for much else. Baker is especially convincing when she writes from the perspective of those responsible for cleaning things. The doorstep at Gracechurch Street in London, for instance, is scrubbed so clean that when Sarah first visits, accompanying Elizabeth as a lady’s maid, she feels a new sympathy for the Gardiners housemaid. “How her hands would smart from the soap, how her shoulders would ache with all the scrubbing, to get the stone that white in all this dirt.”
London has none of the charms and attractions for Sarah that it does for the Bennet sisters. Sarah walks through arcades where bolts of fabric are sold at great price, and she finds no meaning in such lavish indulgences. She is just a country girl who cannot fall asleep on her pallet in the attic because of all the noise, “the sheer depth of it, layer after layer of sound.”
Baker paints the emotional and physical life of this little housemaid so vividly that even the most beloved characters in Pride and Prejudice come in for criticism. Mr. Bennet fares least well, and Elizabeth seems spoiled and unsympathetic. As Sarah fastens the hooks and eyes on Elizabeth’s petticoat, Elizabeth talks about Mr. Darcy lurking around at Roslings. It feels like self-indulgent chatter. Or rather, like filler, because Elizabeth is indifferent to the trajectory of Sarah’s life, while you as the reader are fully taken in by it.
For the most part, none of the people upstairs excite curiosity. They don’t factor in the servants’ thoughts unless it’s for the “cast iron sense of their own importance.” And we as readers don’t care about them either. The Bennets seem remote; we feel instead for the servants. We identify with Mr. and Mrs. Hill, with James, Polly and Sarah. Their prospects are grim, and from a 21st-century perspective, with its outrage at the widening gap between rich and poor, this feels particularly unfair. It’s a credit to the writing, but also sadly ironic: Longbourn will be popular on account of the beloved Bennets of Pride and Prejudice, and yet as a result of reading Longbourn, you like the Bennets less.
Some characters mix better with the servants. Mr. Wickham takes up more than his fair share of space in the servants’ lives and is cleverly developed, and Mr. Collins has some charming interactions with Sarah.
Perhaps the strained relationship between Longbourn and Pride and Prejudice might have been resolved had Baker engaged in more confident and amusing interplay with Austen. But while the shifted point of view deepened my perspective, it also made me impatient. Since Baker doesn’t play up the Bennets’ aspirational qualities — which is what makes them so endearing in Austen’s hands — but focuses instead on their privilege, I feel I’ve finally had enough of them.
But in the end it is Longbourn the estate, rather than the proprietors of Longbourn, that really makes the prose sing in this novel. When Baker describes the estate and the countryside around it, she transports you to another world. Even still, the most enchanting passages come as Longbourn disappears a little bit from view. On the road to London with Elizabeth and the Gardiners, Sarah sees the property shrink and obscured behind the trees. From her perch on the rumple-seat at the back of the chaise, she sees something of the wider world. All the sights, sounds and smells across the fields, as the ground blurs beneath the carriage wheels, make for delightful reading. You don’t want the journey to end.
Amanda Holmes Duffy is a frequent contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her first novel, I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, will be published by Oak Tree Press in the spring.