The promotional tagline for Jo Baker’s new historical fiction novel is “Pride and Prejudice is only half the story.” I would put forward that Pride and Prejudice is merely the polished flooring that this marvelously realized story dances upon.
As many Janeites* and other literary personages may know, Longbourn is the name of the Bennet family estate in Jane Austen’s beloved period novel, Pride and Prejudice. With that book, generations of readers have had their hopes dashed and then rekindled along with Elizabeth and her Mr. Darcy, not just because of the romance but also because of the environment in which that romance unfolds. The Bennet family, while not destitute, is of modest means, and with five daughters to marry off and no sons to inherit, the financial stability of the Bennets and the security of the estate are major motivations in the actions of their elder generation.
But author Jo Baker chooses a different perspective of this revered Regency tale; her story is told through the eyes of the servants of the manor: Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper and overseer of the hired help, her elderly husband, the maids Sarah and young Polly, and the newly acquired handyman/footman, mysterious John Smith. And while we as readers may be familiar with events that are assuredly taking place in the upper rooms of the estate, understanding of what must be done to support the events that occur in the parlors and the dining rooms is laid out in as familiar a manner to maid Sarah as social etiquette is for the Bennet girls.
While the referencing between Jane Austen’s classic tale and this new work adds a robust extra dimension to Ms. Baker’s work, it is her careful unfolding of her characters supporting Longbourn that is the true joy of the book. Normally “the help” are not even footnotes to grander, aristocratic stories. They are barely seen and rarely named even though they are the ones who keep the estate running, who keep the food on the table and the tea available at all hours, who keep the dresses and petticoats and linens of the girls clean even while their own clothes are threadbare and worn, who only sigh when their mistresses give little thought to traipsing about in the mud and the dirt, for their frivolous young charges have no experience with cleaning fabrics and leathers, no concept of getting stains out of silks and satins and trailing muslin skirts.
Yet the characters of Longbourn do not begrudge the Bennets their station, nor complain about the work to be done. While they curse the chilblains that develop then crack and weep on their hands, they do not blame them on those whom they serve, nor do they rail at the lack of privacy, loss of humanity, and lack of regard that is their lot, even though tasked with every mundane responsibility and given very little of the reward. They measure themselves lucky to be attached to a good man; the work is hard and never ending, but they are not mistreated or abused. This does not mean the heart does not yearn and the mind does not wonder at what might be, but there is no spark of revolt in more than the occasional need to bite one’s tongue or not respond to an unwarranted rebuke. And there is great satisfaction taken, even in the meanest of tasks, to keep the wistfulness at bay.
There was so much to be thankful for: there was pleasure in her work, in the rituals and routines of service, the care and conservation of beautiful things, the baking of good bread and the turning of rough, raw foods into savoury and sustaining meals. There was pleasure, too, in the little clutch of people that she now had clustered around her. If she could but be certain that they would continue in this manner, that James would settle, that Sarah could be made to see sense, that Polly would become steady and useful; if she could but know that this would tend towards continuance, and not towards dissolution, then she could be quite content.
And yet, and yet, the feeling still could not quite be quelled; there was also the fact of her, herself. Would she, at some time, have the chance to care for her own things, her own comforts, her own needs, and not just for other people’s? Could she one day have what she wanted, rather than rely on the glow of other people’s happiness to keep her warm?
It is not long before we as readers begin to understand and appreciate the strength and depth of spirit that defines these service class people; even if they are not as learned nor privileged, they are poetic in their own right, and feel just as deeply about their circumstances as the landed gentry they serve, even as they intimately accept their place in society.
The handsome footman – he so dazzled her that she kept on forgetting to ask his name – didn’t like the mud. He was a pretty bird, a parakeet; the weather weighed him down. And if he was a parakeet, then Mr. Smith was a collie-dog: the weather made no impression on him at all, however much cold or dirt or rain was flung at him: his mind and soul were fixed upon the work at hand. And she – well, the weather didn’t bother her that much either way. If you got wet, you’d get dry again. There was no point in complaining in the meantime.
The more we get to know these characters; their backgrounds (some of them quite surprising and heartbreaking), their hopes, their fears, their motivations and desires, the more we realize that their lives are played on a stage just as large or perhaps even larger than that of their employers, facing decisions as momentous to their lives as the question of matrimonial grace is to the Bennet women. While the servants of Longbourn may be lesser in social status, with less chance at opportunity than those of their masters, they are no lesser people in sense or sensibility. In fact, they sometimes seem to have more depth than those upon whom they patiently wait.
Sarah touched Elizabeth’s curls back into order. Her mistress had brightened, but now faded again, and was thoughtful. Perhaps it was not an easy thing, to be so entirely happy. Perhaps it was actually quite a fearful state to live in – the knowledge that one had achieved a complete success.
It’s interesting to compare what are figured as momentous events in Pride and Prejudice yet which get merely a glance in Longbourn. The delicate dance between Jane and Mr. Bingley is barely noticed here, and Mr. Darcy, who plays such a huge role in Jane Austen’s novel, does not get more than a mere mention until his marriage with Elizabeth is assured. Yet the visit by Mr. Collins is of great importance and reverberates through much of the narrative, while Wickham cements his nefarious reputation in ways not evidenced in Ms. Austen’s text. These differences in weight make perfect sense. For instance, the servants in Longbourn are impacted to a far greater degree with their need to make a good impression on Mr. Collins than on the societal interactions of the Bennet girls; in fact, this is one of the few times when their destiny potentially lies within their own ability to shape it. After all, as inheritor of the estate once Mr. Bennet has breathed his last (and him being no spring chicken), Mr. Collins – or whoever he ends up marrying – could sack them all at a moment’s notice unless they prove themselves as being valuable. So it is vitally important that they at all times make a good impression, even if their efforts appear to go unnoticed.
Longbourn starts out as a novelty – a different way of experiencing Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – but very quickly establishes itself as an outstanding novel in its own right, plus it’s an amazing glimpse into the nuts and bolts – and elbow grease – that went in to maintaining a manor house in the Regency era. It’s not just fans of Jane Austen, or “Upstairs/Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey”, who will enjoy this book, but anyone who appreciates a well researched and well crafted tale, full of genuine and gripping characters who are living lives bared to the core.
* avowed devotees of Jane Austen