“If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields.”
Lovers of all things Austen will doubtless be intrigued by this first novel by Jo Baker, released in September this year, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Pride & Prejudice.
Austen's most popular work has been flattered by imitation, re-telling and alternate tales countless times. This version seeks to convey that the luck in love and prosperity enjoyed by Jane and Elizabeth, was not only to modern readers, but also to the majority of people in the Georgian era - a fairytale. Baker has focussed her retelling on the trials and hopes of the domestic staff who lived and worked at Longbourn. Where in the original Pride & Prejudice the lives of servants provided a background hum to the drama of bonnets and Bennets, in Baker's novel it is the tumult of the Bennets' indulgent and carefree existence which provides a backdrop to the struggle of life below stairs.
While readers of Pride & Prejudice yearn for the Bennet girls to achieve the aspiration of marriages blessed with love and grand estates, it is not often noted that the Bennet family were already quite wealthy and independent to start with. Traditional admirers of Austen's world and P&P purists may find Baker's perspective of the help too much of a deviation from the fairytale, but those able to appreciate the historical context and savour the original P&P as a side-dish will truly enjoy this new layer to the story. The Bennet family and their tumult are still present and Baker allows us to feel their tale unfold, but it is Sarah the housemaid's story that holds court.
It is through the eyes of Sarah that we view Longbourn, from when she rises to fetch freezing water before dawn, through to clearing plates after cooking and serving lunch, doing laundry, mending, scrubbing and attending to the whims of the Bennet family until well after dark. Sarah's life is one of constant toil, exhaustion and unrelenting poverty. Her prospects are limited at best and simple things like a lump of sugar or a moment to herself are luxuries indeed. Sarah's dreams and desires are confined to never having to spend every waking hour waiting on others. But her routine is interrupted one morning, by the employment of a footman at Longbourn. James Smith is a kind, industrious but shy man, whose presence and past is both a mystery and an infuriating distraction to Sarah. So too is the new arrival at Netherfield Hall of the footman Ptolemy. Guided by the parental benevolence of Mrs Hill the housekeeper, Sarah must begin to navigate unsettling new feelings and contemplate what she truly wants from life.
While Longbourn does not describe the haunting self-sacrifice and loss depicted in Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, it still gives a poignant illustration of the life for those bound to duty in the houses of the upperclass and in addition reminds us that a further backdrop to the time was the ferocious and tragic Peninsular War. Kitty and Lydia Bennet might have been excited by handsome officers in red coats and chances to dance with them, but the truth of the matter was that soldiers were dying and troops were mobilised across Europe, with devastating results. However, despite these truths, Baker has still managed to treat readers to a slice of Austen frivolity and her prose is fluid and pretty.
Longbourn is a fascinating work and one that has great merit. It is an easy but informative read and with Focus Features snapping up film rights within a day of publication, we may see it grace big screens as well as bookshelves in the near future. Perhaps after reading it, you might no longer care who they cast as Darcy and Bingley....