I’m a fan of writers who tackle a famous work of literature from a new vantage point (for example, Gregory McGuire in Wicked or Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea) and do it in such a way that the end result fundamentally changes the way you view the original. Longbourn worked for me in that respect because by giving the servants in the background of Pride and Prejudice back stories and names, Jo Baker makes me see the gaps in Jane Austen’s narrative (and I say that as someone who really loves Jane Austen).
Rather than focusing on the eldest Bennet sisters, Baker’s story focuses on the “downstairs” inhabitants of Longbourn. We get to know Sarah and Polly, the housemaids, and Mr. and Mrs. Hill, both who have been in service to the Bennets for much of their lives. Through mostly Sarah’s eyes, we begin to see how much work goes into keeping the Bennet’s household running but also the mind numbingly boring nature of it. Not surprisingly, the arrival of a new footman, James Smith, is welcomed by all.
The novelty of James is soon eclipsed for Sarah because just like the Bennet daughters, Sarah is distracted by the arrival of a Bingley, only her attention is caught by Mr. Bingley’s servant, Ptolemy. He is not only the first black man that Sarah has ever seen but his dreams of opening a cigar shop in London make him even more interesting and exotic. Sarah, who reads novels loaned to her by Lizzie Bennet, dreams of doing more with her life and Ptolemy looks like just the ticket.
However, this isn’t just one person’s story; Baker also focuses on Mrs. Hill and James and explores the connection they have to each other and to Sarah. The end result is a novel that feels like a mix of historical fiction and romance but with Jane Austen’s plot always hovering at the edges.