Pride and Prejudice is one of my sacred books. I’ve loved the story for decades, ever since I read it the first time. The majority of Pride and Prejudice re-tellings and rip-offs make me cringe when I see them reviewed. But Jo Baker’s Longbourn intrigued me rather than made me shudder. It promised a fresh perspective and it delivered. Longbourn also gave me a thrilling love story to go along with that perspective.
Sarah has been a maid for the Bennett family since Mrs. Hill rescued her from the poorhouse at age six. She’s washed their laundry (including Elizabeth’s muddy petticoats). She’s fetched their shopping from Meryton. She’s dressed their hair for assemblies and balls. But the events related in Pride and Prejudice remain at a distance for her. Longbourn follows that plot fairly closely, but Baker creates a lively story downstairs. Longbourn also turned the events of Pride and Prejudice around, inverting them in Sarah’s story to show us how the limitations of the original tale*.
On the day that news arrives at Longbourn that Netherfield Park has be let to a Mr. Bingley, a new footman makes his home in the stable loft. James Smith is closemouthed about his past, igniting Sarah’s suspicions about him. Meanwhile, Sarah finds Ptolemy Bingley, a former slave turned footman for Mr. Bingley, very charming. She finds him so charming, in fact, that Sarah resents Mrs. Hill’s attempts to keep them from having any chance to talk to each other. As time goes on (and after Sarah does some snooping in James’ loft), Sarah realizes that James is not the shady character she presumed. Her prejudices slowly vanish when she spots the signs of James’ affection for her–the filled water bucket, the cleaned fireplace grates, the stack of fresh wood by the hearths. Sarah and James’ love is not as tentative or as mannered as Jane and Bingley’s or Elizabeth and Darcy’s. Because they are servants, however, they have to hide it from everyone else or risk dismissal.
When Mr. Wickham arrives in narrative, the status quo is disrupted. Wickham doesn’t feel the need to hide his laziness and lechery from the servants below stairs. He is much more villainous in Longbourn than Austen could ever have made him in Pride and Prejudice. When James interrupts Wickham attempting to “interfere” with the youngest maid, Polly, Wickham threatens to tell his colonel about James’ past as a soldier and that his colonel should investigate why James is in England instead of with his regiment. To spare the Bennett household–and Sarah–the shame of exposure, James flees in the night.
The last third of Longbourn is nail-biting as its plot stops shadowing the plot of Pride and Prejudice. Once Elizabeth and Jane are married, we no longer have a road map. Anything could happen. I’m glad that I had the chance to read this part uninterrupted because if I’d had to stop, I would have been very displeased. When I finished the book, I had a big grin on my face.
When you read Pride and Prejudice, Austen doesn’t hint at the amount of work it took to create a life of relative ease for the Bennett family. Because the estate is entailed to Mr. Collins, the servants also have to wonder what will happen when Mr. Bennett dies because they might have to find new jobs. On top of this tension, Baker shows us that the servants are ever really off work. In their scant leisure time, they’re still not at liberty to leave the estate or pursue relationships or speak up for better working and living conditions–or to even remind their employers to say thank you every now and then.
I will always love Pride and Prejudice. But now that I’ve read Longbourn, I think my future re-readings will have a new layer to them. I will wonder about the lives of the servants that are briefly mentioned in the original story and wonder what is happening below stairs.
* I still love Pride and Prejudice, no matter how much other authors play around with it.