Review: Longbourn, Jo Baker

 It doesn’t take a particularly dedicated follower of this blog to realise that I am a big Austen fan so I was always going to take a friendly interest in this book.  There are many reasons to love Austen, her prose is near to flawless, the social observation is still fresh as a daisy and there is so much beauty to her stories.  The best known is of course Pride and Prejudice which has spawned oh so very many spin-offs and sequels.  This Christmas, the BBC adapted Death Comes to Pemberley for the small screen and managed to pull it together into a far more compelling story than P.D. James’ original novel which was no mean feat given that my personal assessment of that book remains that it is irredeemably dire.  There’s something about Pride and Prejudice which means that people want to imagine beyond the final line – we want to find out more, but given that this is a marriage plot, there is a danger to this over-exploration.  Is there really more to be seen?
Austen herself was not immune to this, she is known to have looked out for her characters’ portraits when in galleries, commenting that she never spotted Elizabeth’s which was only natural since of course Darcy would be unwilling to display it publicly.  Anyway, while Death Comes to Pemberley always seemed alarmingly out of place, Longbourn slotted in perfectly to the story.  I was riveted.  It’s not that it is a masterpiece on the same level as the original, but rather that it is a fascinating and thought-provoking examination of Pride and Prejudice from a completely different perspective – the servants.  A couple of years ago, I read and reviewed What Matters in Jane Austen? which had a chapter on “Do We Ever See The Lower Classes?” in which John Mullan points out that contemporary readers would have understood in a way that modern readers have forgotten, that in almost every scene, there would be servants standing in the background.  The silent observers, unmentioned and unnoticed but it was a servant who betrayed Maria Bertram’s plans in Mansfield Park and who told on Colonel Brandon’s Eliza in Sense and Sensibility.  They are everywhere and they watch and through their eyes, we see those fine Austen heroines in a completely new light.
Lydia & the servants
The main characters in this story are Sarah the housemaid, Polly the kitchen maid, Mr and Mrs Hill the butler and housekeeper and then the handsome new stranger who has arrived to be the footman, James.  John Mullan described Longbourn as needing a significantly larger staff than this but again in her afterword, Baker takes into account the Bennets’ income and makes her estimate.  We know that the Bennets kept a footman because one brought Jane the letter announcing that Bingley and co. had left Netherfield but Baker points out that that would have been highly unusual for a family in their economic position.  The mysterious provenance of the Bennets’ footman is therefore a fairly major plot point.
The story opens with Sarah bracing herself for laundry day, ‘the air sharp at four thirty in the morning‘.  Chilblains flaring, Sarah carts the water back to the house, knowing that the day will be long and there will be little joy in it.  It’s funny, a friend of mine recently told me that she had not liked the 1995 BBC version of P & P because she felt that it had not adequately addressed the topic of the class system. The servants of Longbourn occupy the same space as the Bennet ladies but they are a world away.
Shoe roses … more trouble than they’re worth.
Of course, this is partly because there is less ironic observation but rather more a quiet mixture of resentment and resignation.  Baker explained that she was inspired to write the novel after being caught by the passage where Austen explains that before the Netherfield ball, the rain had been so severe that even ‘the shoe roses had to be got by proxy‘.  This translates to Elizabeth and Jane realising that their old shoe roses simply won’t do and Sarah standing in invisible horror as they thoughtlessly decide that she will be the one to tramp through the deluge to fetch them.  When you actually stop and think, even the wonderful Elizabeth Bennet suddenly seems incredibly selfish.  Their very charity in occasionally gifting their cast-offs is patronising.
Washing my own petticoats?  Yuck!
Every time a message was passed between Netherfield and Longbourn, a servant would have needed to walk all the way over to deliver it, then walk all the way back to bring the reply.  And then back again.  The plot was propelled by these invisible nameless characters who were completely beneath the Bennets’ notice.  Baker even has Sarah accompany Elizabeth on her visit to the Collins’; while normally crowbarring a character into the plot would irritate me enormously, this is entirely credible because Elizabeth truly wouldn’t have given her maid a thought throughout the whole course of the trip.  The tag line in the dust cover was that ‘If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them‘; as Elizabeth sets out to Netherfield to enquire after Jane, Sarah sighs quietly as she watches her go, knowing that there’s another petticoat that will never be quite the same.
This book made me think about what it would really be like to live with servants and I don’t think that I would like it.  Downton Abbey painted a very rosy picture of warm affection between the two spheres but Longbourn is far more brutal.  Sarah launders the sheets, washes the clothes, carries down the chamber pots, boils and scrubs the napkins for the girls’ monthly events (‘an unfortunate time of the month, when all the women in the house were more than usually short-tempered, clumsy and prone to tears, and then bled‘), she sees everything and yet they know nothing of her.  Sarah is sure that there is more to life than what she has, in many respects she has more in common with Jane Eyre than Austen’s usual leading ladies.  Indeed, Sarah has her own Mr Bingley to be excited over – Ptolemy Bingley, the ex-slave footman to the Mr Bingley whose character is more familiar.
Regency servants
The Bennets keep mostly in the background – if you pick up Longbourn for a further swoon over Mr Darcy, you will be disappointed.  Still, I found there was something almost delicious about the way that the drama upstairs was so ignored by those below stairs.  I mean, it makes sense.  No matter how much people love gossip, ultimately we are all most preoccupied by our own affairs.  Jane may look tearful round about the time of the Bingleys’ departure but Sarah has her own things going on.  In many respects, she is as condescending about the girls’ romances as they are about her social class.  Sarah recognises that mimicking Jane’s modesty would be pointless because  ‘only a gentleman would have […] the leisure to devote his hours to winkling a female out of herself‘.  With the worldly cynicism that comes from being in your twenties and not having quite found your place yet, Sarah knows that things won’t work out like that for her.
Mr Bennet.  A mean man.
Of course, things that happen above stairs do have their consequences.  After a dispute over the new footman, Mrs Hill is spitefully punished by Mr Bennet by not being informed of Mr Collins’ visit until the day itself.  In Pride and Prejudice, this is seen as merely a sign of Mr Bennet’s eccentricity and the way in which he enjoys teasing his family yet in Longbourn, his actions take on a glaring cruelty.  After his death, the Hills and the girls will have no guaranteed employment and will rely on any good impression which they can make with Mr Collins to secure their positions.  Mrs Hill is left running around franticly trying to impress Mr Collins – there is a meanness to the way that Mr Bennet exercises his power over her that seemed to me far worse than his other more familiar failures as father and husband.  To Mrs Hill’s great relief, Charlotte Lucas accepts him – a familiar face who was known to be partial to the pies from Longbourn kitchen.  A tactical gift of a new pelisse for the wedding and the staff of Longbourn can feel quietly confident that there will be no major staffing changes when Mr Bennet passes.
Mrs Hill enquiring after Lydia
Mr Wickham’s dastardliness also crosses over nicely, making an attempt on the adolescent Polly’s virtue even while he is trying to seduce Lydia.  Given that Wickham was near enough to thirty, Baker is laying heavy suggestions about that so-called gentleman’s predilections.  Wickham is one of the very few P & P characters who really sees the servants, actually noticing their feelings and desires.  This of course makes perfect sense because he was born into their world, his father was the steward at Pemberley – Wickham knows the way of things below stairs.  The elopement is a sadness to Mrs Hill who had known Lydia since a baby and immediately recognises ‘what a poor, poor bargain she had made of herself‘.  Recent rereadings of P & P have brought me to the same conclusion – Lydia has been horribly foolish but her folly will bring her more punishment than even she deserves.
In all the romance of Pride and Prejudice and its sister books, we forget that that is what these women were trying to do – to make a bargain that they could live with.  They have not the power to craft their own destiny, they have to make the right choice given that their options are few.  For all that though, one of my favourite parts of Longbourn came from Mrs Hill’s disgust at the state of Lydia’s luggage post-elopement, full of ‘blood and sweat and spunk and travel dust, and the shiny grubbiness of things that have gone too long between washings‘.  Sarah and Polly poke gingerly at the case and Mrs Hill silently opines that if she had the ruling ‘and not just the maintenance‘ of that young lady, this one time she would have had to clean up after herself ‘and see what other people saw of her‘.  The depressing fact is that given her projected future income, Lydia will probably be having to do see to herself before long.
Reading back all of this, I have written a lot about Pride and Prejudice, about the events of that novel but there is more to Longbourn.  A lot of its beauty comes from its back story.  In the afterword, Baker explained that she had set out to cover the plot of Pride and Prejudice as closely as she could, that whenever a meal was eaten in Pride and Prejudice, she matched it with a meal being served in Longbourn and as a reader, I applauded her accuracy.  In my review of Death Comes to Pemberley, I verbally spat feathers over how PD James had muddled very important facts of the original when coming to write her book.  If you’re writing a spin-off, you need to know your source material.  There will always been an annoying person like me who has virtually memorised the thing to catch you out if you try to skimp.  It’s just not worth it.  Still, spin-offs also need to function on their own merits  and Longbourn does.
Longbourn isn’t perfect, a lot of time is spent setting up a back story for James the footman and although this part is Baker’s only independent creation, it is also the most forgettable and the ‘twist’ was something which I saw coming a mile away.  I think that despite his wider significance, James just isn’t as compelling a character as Sarah.  As a reader, just like Mrs Hill, I really wanted Sarah to find her happiness.  Yet still, as the book neared its finale, I was caught by how Longbourn had been far more of a real home to the servants than it had ever really seemed to be for the Bennets.  Sarah and Polly were two orphan girls taken in and trained by Mrs Hill and there is more warmth and affection in that most unorthodox of families than there ever seemed to be for the family upstairs.  For all that Longbourn had provided a refuge to these lonely people, they are not its owners and with three of the Bennet girls married, Mrs Hill knows that one of the maids will have to move on from such a diminished household, another point that had never occurred to me.
Having recently been given a Kindle by my wonderful godmother, I have been introduced to the world of self-published ebooks and so I stumbled across Scenes Jane Austen Never Wrote which ‘filled in the gaps’ in the narrative of Pride and Prejudice and then more bewilderingly rewrote certain scenes that Austen actually had written.  It was really odd reading a description of how Elizabeth felt reading Darcy’s letter given that I have already read the bit where Elizabeth described those feelings in the original novel.  Some of it was interesting, but more of the chapters were instantly forgettable.  Or just bizarre, such as the lengthy descriptions of Mr Collins’ extra-large cucumber … or even simply out of place such as Jane and Bingley’s pre-marital sex or Charlotte Lucas’ adultery.  Supposing that Charlotte had set herself up with a lover might be wish-fulfilment on the part of the reader who wants more for a sensible woman like Charlotte but pragmatism was at the centre of Mrs Collins’ character; taking that away from her diminishes her characterisation.
The beauty of Baker’s work is not just that she has written an excellent novel but also that she has managed it without resorting to hyperbole or stretching the narrative in any way.  We may wince when Mr Darcy scolds Sarah for having the temerity to leave her position, but we know that that is him all over and does not mean that he loves Elizabeth any less.  Baker is pursuing a personal agenda – she has family members who were in service – but she is not adding in anything that was not already there.  For me, the marker of Baker’s success is that I was so uplifted by her finale – these were characters who I had come to truly care about.  Those final glimpses of Elizabeth Bennet in her married state were tantalising but as a reader, I already felt secure in her happy ending.  What Baker has created is a story from the background, the piece from the jigsaw puzzle that I’d never realised was missing.  Perhaps it helped that Baker is already an established novelist … although it did not seem to help out PD James.  However she did it, Baker has soared far above the fan fiction category and written an excellent and truly warm companion piece to Pride and Prejudice.  Highly recommended.
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Longbourn by Jo Baker
Published by Random House on August 15th 2013
Genres: Fiction, General, Historical
Pages: 448
Goodreads
ISBN: 9781448170159


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