In her Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, author Fay Weldon calls the Regency era “by our standards, a horrible time to be alive.” She also writes that the class society was “fair enough if you were Jane Austen, but supposing you were the maid?” That is what Jo Baker’s Longbourn does: supposes you were the maid. And it does the supposing brilliantly. For me, this was one of those books where the reading experience is so emotionally magnificent, it seems like a waste to read anything else for a while afterwards: they’re just bound to pale in comparison.
Longbourn is of course the home for Lizzie, Jane, their sisters, and parents, The Bennet’s, whose lives and romantic entanglements are mapped in Jane Austen’s “light, and bright, and sparkling” Pride and Prejudice. Those adjectives could not be more ill fitting to describe Longbourn where we follow the folks downstairs, instead of upstairs. In other words, Baker has imagined lives and romantic entanglements for the servants who bring Bennet’s their letters, keep them fed, mend their clothes, hear their worries, and empty their chamber-pots. The servants do rather demonstrate the terribleness of the times. They toil in back-breaking labor, subject to the whims and capriciousness of their “betters”, and even then they’re the lucky ones, not starving, not sleeping outdoors.
The lives of Sarah, Polly and Mrs. and Mr. Hill begin to change when Mr. Bennet hires a new valet, the mysterious, half-starved James Smith. Quite frankly, it’s immediately obvious who and what James really is, but that little bit of predictability doesn’t much lessen the quality of the book. The plot doesn’t have to leave you gasping in astonishment, since Baker’s true strength, where she really shines, is character building. All the servants have rich inner lives, their own hopes and dreams. And even though seen from the servants’ perspective, the Bennet’s may appear a touch less sympathetic than in P&P, they’re not really villains. Longbourn is not interested in that kind of simplification. There’s one villain though, and his name is George Wickham.
What I loved most about this book, was the sense of bitter-sweetness that permeates it. The characters long for better, but there’s an inevitable loss to even the happiest of endings.
The next part of this review is just a note of some recurring themes that fascinated me during reading. Feel free to skip them.
Sugar. The sweet stuff comes up again and again in the pages of Longbourn. It’s offered with bread and milk to a half-starved Sarah when she comes to the house as a child. Polly and Lydia crave it. It and the slaves that grow it form the bases of Bingleys’ wealth. James sails a ships that brings sugar from New World to Old. And so on.
Blood. Sarah and Polly’s hands bleed after washing. The clothes stained with period blood soak in the corner of the kitchen. Sarah leaves a little pinprick of blood behind when she leaves Pemberley. And of course the blood of war. So when blood and blood stains are mentioned so frequently, it becomes noticeable when the narrator keeps silent about them. And that’s in relation to sex.
Water. Water is heavy to carry, but also necessary, it’s needed constantly. The servants carry it up and down, they ruin their hands in it. But it also offers comfort and sustenance for James.
All in all, a very successful look behind the scenes of one of my favorite novels, and highly recommended. A book hasn’t managed to make me cry in a good long while, but this one did, and every one of those tears was richly earned.