Longbourn by Jo Baker – the “Downstairs” secrets of Pride and Prejudice
Among the huge pile of Pride and Prejudice sequels and associated books available, this one really stands out. Covering the period of the novel, it tells the story of Mrs Hill and the other servants in the Bennet household, the figures who are briefly mentioned as being in the background, announcing visitors, carrying messages and hot water, serving up meals which provide some of the set pieces in the novel. This book is well known as the book which has a typical line “If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields”. Sarah is the maid of all work, a young woman painfully conscious of her seemingly never ending tasks “Work just lingered and festered and lay in wait, to make you slip up in the morning”. Sarah, little Polly, Mr and Mrs Hill comprise the near silent workers who support the memorable family and all the visitors to the household. This is their story, as the family flips in and out of view, revealing secrets or keeping quiet on the comings and goings of various people. Not that they are insular, changeless people, as a new member of the household has a curious effect on the balance of the servants’ lives. This is the story of love in several forms, fear and disruption amid the secrets of a seemingly settled domestic machine. Beautifully written, intense and full of insight, this is a wonderful read for all those with any knowledge of Jane Austen’s masterpiece.
Sarah, taken in by the motherly Mrs Hill and trained up to work in the household, notices much about the house that she has grown up in, learning how to wash, clean and much else. She knows that she has little to show for her labours: two dresses and a lot of chilblains. She can read, but has little opportunity of leisure for such activities. When she encounters a footman from Netherfield, she begins to wonder if there could be more to life than domestic work. James also turns up, and no one is very sure what to make of him, though he certainly has a past which he is unkeen to reveal. As Sarah encounters the harsh reality of military life, Polly is also exposed to risk from a familiar character. Mrs Hill is keeping secrets, not all her own, as their lives are affected by the risk of Mr Bennet’s death and the famous entail which would mean that the house went to Mr Collins, whose visit is also of much interest to the servants below stairs.
As characters from the well known novel intersect with the servants, more is subtly revealed about their lives than Austen wrote, but which is entirely consistent with what is so well known. This is a book which explains in incredible detail the daily lives of a large section of the population, away from the relatively comfortable lives usually reflected in period novels and tv adaptations. Baker’s research into the household tasks carried out by women is of great depth, but never gets in the way of the strength of the narrative. The concept of the book is an excellent one, and Baker carries it out brilliantly. The section away from the house is weaker, as the great strength of this book is in the shadowing of the famous novel. This book is an attractive and worthwhile read for any Austen fan and was much enjoyed by myself and our book club.
This book was a real favourite with the book group, especially as some members found the excuse perfect to read Pride and Prejudice as well, or at least have a cosy afternoon with the tv adaptation. I read it years ago, and went to hear a talk from Jo Baker about the perils and challenges about writing about much loved literary characters. As a fan of Austen sequels and similar books, this is probably one of the best I have encountered, and is a real favourite.