“If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.”
A few weeks ago I successfully re-located the “Leisure Reading” section of my university’s library (it moved) and, having done this, then felt compelled to get a book out. I discovered a copy of Jo Baker’s Longbourn. It’s a take on the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspectives that I remember being advertised and acclaimed a few years ago. Frankly you only need to mention Austen and I’m interested; so of course I borrowed it and added it to the Reading List.
The details of my relationship with Pride and Prejudice are a little fuzzy to me. Several years ago I first saw the 2005 film starring Keira Knightley, then watched Bride & Prejudice (2004 – the Bollywood version) and possibly the legendary 1995 mini-series with Colin Firth before I finally got round to reading the original book. I borrowed it from my local library at least 2 or 3 times* before spontaneously buying a copy in the Oxford branch of Waterstones. It’s a cheap paperback with a black/red colour scheme clearly aimed at Twihards (seriously, the Wuthering Heights edition advertised on the back says “Bella & Edward’s favourite book” on the front cover) but it’s my go-to book when I’m feeling miserable and has literally travelled across the world with me (limited traveller that I am). It’s now lovingly battered and is one of my all-time favourite books. I have consumed an awful lot of Pride and Prejudice adaptations: the webseries, the black and white film, in addition to those mentioned above** and was happy to find a new one in Longbourn.
The book is primarily told from the point of view of Sarah, a housemaid at Longbourn – familiar to Janeites as the Bennet family home – but is also told from others’ perspectives including the footman, James and the housekeeper, Mrs Hill. At first I was a bit bemused by this fickle jumping from perspective to perspective when Sarah seemed to be the main character, with the story seen mainly through her eyes, but then I remembered Austen herself was prone to do this. For example, Pride and Prejudice is told primarily from Elizabeth Bennet’s perspective but that doesn’t stop us from discovering Darcy’s opinion of her “fine eyes” long before she does.
I wouldn’t exactly call Longbourn an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It has its own plots and subplots, romances and intrigues, and a killer twist in the middle that I just did not see coming. However a highlight of the book’s plot is how it is intertwined with the plot of Austen’s original. Baker herself describes it rather elegantly with “When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn. When the Bennet girls enter a ball in Austen’s novel, they leave the carriage waiting in this one [Longbourn].” All the servants at Longbourn featured in the book are apparently mentioned in Austen’s novel (though not all with a name) – personally I remember Mrs Hill clearly but, try as I might, cannot bring to mind any mention of the second housemaid. Baker links up these brief glimpses of the servants that must have been keeping Longbourn running and provides these characters with full and rich personalities and backstories.
Longbourn is also grittier. While Pride and Prejudice has been selling the romance of the Regency era probably for as long as it hasn’t been considered a contemporary work, Longbourn confronts the realities of what was going on behind-the-scenes, taking in war and slavery but also who had to clean Elizabeth’s petticoats when they were “six inches deep in mud”. I love a corsets-&-bonnets-focused period drama as much as the next gal but it was really interesting to get this insight from someone who had clearly done their research.
Longbourn would be excellent as a stand-alone book. That, on top of its own romance/intrigue, you get to enjoy the references to scenes that overlap with Austen’s masterpiece makes it a delight.
*Not unusual for me – it’s how I deal with not having enough money to buy all the books but being mostly unable to decide on which are most worthy of being bought.
**Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is also on the Reading List.