“The room was dull now, and meaningless, with the young ladies gone from it. They were both lovely, almost luminous. And Sarah was, she knew, as she slipped along the servants’ corridor, and then up the stairs to the attic to hang her new dress on the rail, just one of the many shadows that ebbed and tugged at the edges of the light.” (53)
It’s one thing to tell a new story with the basic plot of Austen’s novels, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary or Clueless, but I am immediately skeptical of anyone who attempts to take Austen’s characters and add to them. One of my favorite novels is Pride and Prejudice, and I don’t appreciate lesser authors bastardizing the world that Austen created. So it wasn’t until I read a number of positive reviews here on Cannonball that I finally decided to read Longbourn (2014) by Jo Baker. And I am so glad that I did.
Baker managed to create an entirely new world and new perspective while sticking strictly to the upstairs script that Austen had already set out. Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah, and Polly make up the household staff at Longbourn. Mrs. Hill is the long-term housekeeper, and Sarah is our main protagonist. Taken into Longbourn from the poorhouse as a child after her parents died, Sarah lives a life with shelter and dependable food but also consistently difficult manual labor and a limited, bleak future. The four have created a family of sorts, a definite comfort in their uncertain world.
“But the whole thing left Sarah feeling very ill at ease. It was all as arbitrary and as far beyond their control as the weather. To live so entirely at the mercy of other people’s whims and fancies was, she thought, no way to live at all.” (167)
“And this was what money could do–it was a sort of magic. It turned thoughts into things, desire in to effect.” (297)
A young, mysterious man, James, is soon added to the downstairs staff, and Sarah is immediately intrigued. Just becoming an age where she begins to question her situation and limits, James is a symbol of a world bigger than the kitchens at Longbourn. Baker continues the story, weaving love, class differences, and mystery all together in a book that has probably forever altered my perspective of Pride and Prejudice.
What struck me most about Longbourn was that Baker was able to take a story and people that I felt I knew really well and widen my perspective of their lives. Jane and Lizzie are still beautiful and thoughtful and they treat their staff well, but they are unaware of how their lives and their demands affect those downstairs. One could blame the Bennett girls for being so unmindful, but did you ever think of the servants while reading Pride and Prejudice? I would venture no. I would venture that the wonderful Mr. Bingley and the incomparable Mr. Darcy were far more interesting than the people in the shadows keeping everything running.
Baker also brings a much darker view of this time in England. With more historical detail, including how Mr. Bingley’s fortune stems from slave plantations to the war in Spain, this world feels more violent, dangerous, and dark. “Wherever you are, Mrs. Hill thought, God watches over you. He just looks on at you, with a strange eye and an uncaring heart.” (263) In addition, the well-known events that occur upstairs have very different consequences for those upstairs and down. When the Bennett girls begin to marry, a joyous occasion upstairs, it means less work and the inevitable split of the close knit family downstairs. In addition, Mr. Collins is not a usurper throwing the family out of their house, but a possible new boss who must be impressed.
“Sarah peered closer at her sewing, her lips pressed tight: Mr. Collins could not help his awkwardness. He could not help where he had come from, or what chances nature 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.” (115)
With James, the mysterious footman, and the intricate relationships, both upstairs and down, this book often reminded me of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey. I really enjoyed reading Longbourn, and I look forward to re-reading Pride and Prejudice soon with a different perspective.
You can find all of my reviews here.