Longbourn is set in the same world as Pride and Prejudice but the story it tells is a very different one. We get to know the “downstairs” in Longbourn but this is not just a “downstairs” story. Longbourn is a story about another side of Pride and Prejudice—another side of Longbourn, another side of Mr. Bennet, another side of the sisters, Hill the housekeeper, and even another side of Mrs. Bennet, and Mr. Collins. There’s a sense of the characters being fleshed out more fully, and of Jo Baker bringing to light another dimension of these well-known characters.
Sarah is the heroine in our narrative and is one of the two house maids in the Bennet’s employ. She wonders why anyone would want another human being to be satisfied with the emptying of the chamber pot and the washing of other peoples’ underthings. She wants another life for herself, a life where she wasn’t “so entirely at the mercy of other people’s whims and fancies.” She doesn’t want a life that’s a facsimile of those she serves; her dreams, her thoughts, her desires are all her own.
Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, is the other star around which Longbourn revolves. She is the one who keeps everything running smoothly. That she has far more sense than Mrs. Bennet is obvious. Contrast Mrs. Bennet’s joy at seeing Lydia married to Mrs. Hill’s reaction: “Mrs. Hill felt at once desperate for her, and furious: what a poor, poor bargain she had made of herself.” Life has given her a short shrift, and yet she finds it within her to be more forgiving of Mrs. Bennet than anyone else perhaps:
She was a wearying, anxious being, was Mrs. B.; she was always so eager to solicit interest in her sufferings. But if her husband had loved her as a husband should—contentedly, generously, and without reserve—would she then have found it necessary to keep on seeking proofs of love, only to keep on being disappointed?
Baker takes Austen’s characters and looks beyond the surface of who they are.
And so, Mr. Collins, instead of being a pompous fool, is shown to be just another nervous young man who’s eager to impress:
Mr. Collins could not help his awkwardness. He could not help where he had come from, or what chances natures and upbringing had given, or failed to give, him. And if he did not know the by-laws of the household, it was because nobody had told him; he was expected to intuit them, and then was blamed for his failure.
Baker does this again, and again. She shifts her perspective of the characters ever so slightly that it seems to be in keeping with who they are, and yet, it also presents them in an all new light—some appear more mellow than they originally had, while others make you wince at their casual thoughtlessness (Looking at you Jane, and Lizzie!). This was one of my favorite parts about Longbourn and it really drove home the point that perspective matters a lot in story-telling—change the lens and you might be telling an all together different story.
Longbourn details the drudgery of the life of the servants in the 19th century, and yet at no point did this make for a dismal read. One reason for this is the writing which is really lovely. Baker is a perfect example of a writer who believes in showing rather than telling, and nowhere is this more evident than in Mrs. Hill’s reveries which though emotionally sparse are brimming with meaning.
Here’s another example of what I mean—I love that anger makes Sarah “rearrange” herself:
Sarah was bristling now; she rolled her shoulders, planted her feet, rearranging herself.
And here is James’s discovery of being in love with Sarah (he’s a footman hired by the Bennets, and is the “hero”):
His thoughts lit in turn on the immediate causes—Netherfield’s being shut up, Ptolemy Bingley’s departure for London—and then bundled into a downhill helter-skelter, through the chances of her happiness, fears for her safety, the dangers of the world beyond, her ignorance of them; and then on into an image of this place without her, without a glare or shrug or roll of her eyes, without a glimpse of her slim figure slipping round a corner; without her unyielding, breathing flesh beside him in the room—to arrive at the shock of a full stop: he loved her.
And here’s a description of a noisy metropolis:
Despite her tiredeness, she could not sleep: the noise—the sheer depth of it, layer after layer of sound—cabs rattling along the street in front, drays rumbling down to the docks, cats fighting or mating in the alleyways, the creak of rope from the wharves, a dog barking, a clock, and another clock, and another still more distant clock chiming out hour after hour of the night, into the darkness, as the Gardiners’ housemaid snored oblivious in her bed, and Sarah twisted and turned and tangled herself up in blankets that smelt of someone else.
Last one, of Mrs. Bennet:
Mrs. Bennet was not one to tiptoe around the edges of disaster, with one eye to the abyss and another to her own comportment: she plunged headlong in, and as she fell, took pains to enumerate of the discomfort and the inconveniences of the fall.
Jo Baker’s tale overlaps with Austen’s account of the Bennets but in Baker’s own words, “it inhabits a very different world.” I’m glad that this rendition of that account exists as well.