Lovers of Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice will recognize the title of this novel as the name of the estate where the beloved Elizabeth Bennet and her family reside. Jo Baker, a diehard fan of Austen and the novel, has taken the classic story and created a parallel “behind the scenes” story for it, imagining what life was like for the servants at Longbourn at the time of the events of Pride and Prejudice. Baker’s focus is on her own characters, some of whom are mentioned in passing in P&P and some that spring from her own imagination. Longbourn complements P&P in a startling way. The reader is exposed to a world that existed in tandem with Austen’s society but that was hidden from the likes of the Bennets, largely because they didn’t have to look. Baker shows in detail the world of the servant, the orphan, the common soldier as opposed to the wealthy, the privileged, the officer. She also has created a really topnotch plot for her characters. I don’t think I’ll be able to read P&P again without thinking of Baker’s characters and the way servants kept the upper crust’s world running smoothly.
Our main character is Sarah, a house servant at Longbourn, an orphan roughly the same age as Elizabeth Bennet. Her life is full of work, from early morning before the family arises, until after dark, when everyone else has gone to bed. The other servants include the cook/housekeeper Hill, her butler husband Mr. Hill, and the younger servant Polly, who is also an orphan. Baker provides detailed descriptions of the types of work required of servants and the amount of effort involved in seemingly mundane tasks like cleaning clothes. In P&P, a famous scene shows our plucky heroine Elizabeth walking to Netherfield through muddy fields, getting her petticoats filthy in 6 inches of muck. How we adore her for being so independent and unconcerned about Mr. Bingley’s sisters’ derision! Yet from Sarah’s point of view, Elizabeth might take better care if she were the one responsible for getting those petticoats back to a pristine white state. Elizabeth and Sarah, though residing under the same roof, live in two very different worlds. Even their experiences of a visit to Meryton are as different as night and day. Elizabeth and her sisters visit shops and mingle with officers. Sarah sees this: Back alleys opened off to the left and right, where half-naked children made dams and pools in the gutters and women hunched on their doorsteps under shawls, bundled babies in their arms. The shambles, when she passed them, were deserted, but were filled with their usual miasma of terror, of ammonia and blood. Sarah’s experience of officers in Meryton is a truly hideous scene in which officers flog an enlisted man. The Miss Bennets would never have seen or known of such things.
The plot for Longbourn gets underway when a new servant is hired — James Smith. He is a few years older than Sarah, dark and quiet. Nothing is known or said about his background, and Sarah finds this suspicious. Why are Mrs. Hill and everyone else so willing to take on and trust this stranger? Even though he works very hard, taking on several tasks that had fallen to Sarah’s lot before (and making her life a bit easier), Sarah finds him irksome because he doesn’t engage with her. She resolves to uncover the truth about him. At the same time, the wealthy Bingley family arrives to open their estate at Netherfield, and Mr. Bingley’s servants, in particular a footman named Ptolemy (Tol), provide novel social interaction for the Longbourn servants. Tol is a mulatto, very handsome and charming. He and Sarah hit it off, but Mrs. Hill doesn’t trust him and James seems wary as well, setting up tension in the servants’ quarters. It is reminiscent of Elizabeth’s relations with Darcy and Wickham without being a clumsy recreation of it.
While Tol and James are figures of Baker’s imagination (and very well drawn characters), there are some characters from P&P besides the Bennets who figure prominently in this novel. Baker’s use of Mr. Collins and of Wickham contributes nicely to the plot without taking anything away from P&P. The arrival of Mr. Collins, future heir to Longbourn, creates a fuss and bother in the servants’ quarters not just because Mrs. Bennet is in an uproar about it but also because the fate of the servants will depend on Mr. Collins. Mrs. Hill is very concerned that, upon taking ownership of Longbourn, Mr. Collins will want to retain their services instead of firing them and bringing in others. In P&P, Mr. Collins is a comic character, much derided by Elizabeth and her father for his pedantry and awkward manners. Sarah provides a more sympathetic view of the man: 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. Wickham, on the other hand, remains very much the smarmy cad, and the adults below stairs have his character pegged long before the Bennet family.
Rather than go into any more plot detail (because it would spoil the fun for anyone who wants to read this), I’ll just say that the overriding theme is about having your own life and finding your own happiness instead of living in the shadow of someone else’s, a luxury afforded to a minority. Lovers of Pride and Prejudice will find that Baker takes great care of our beloved main characters from that novel while showing us a world that Austen and the Bennets barely knew.