Jo Baker’s Longbourn promises to be Pride and Prejudice told from the servants’ perspective, but this isn’t the cute Austen-inspired Upstairs Downstairs that I was expecting.
In Longbourn, the Bennet’s anxious finances mean overworked servants, and every familiar bit of the Pride and Prejudice tale, from Elizabeth’s muddy walk to Netherfeld to Mr. Collins’ visit to the sisters’ shoe-roses for the ball, means more work for the servants. This novel never shies away from the earthier aspects of keeping a respectable house running, whether that’s rendering fat out of a slaughtered pig for soap, taking out chamber pots, and also there are six women in this house, none of whom could be expected to wash their own underwear or, uh, other laundry. (That’s a mental image I can not unsee, although probably pretty realistic. I mean, dirty clothes had to get clean somehow.) The Longbourn housemaid, Sarah, describes doing the household work.
When I went to Amazon to get the cover image and link, I noticed there are loads of negative reviews, saying readers found the novel crass and vulgar. This is a book about servants’ work, and guess what servants had to do before indoor plumbing? I didn’t find this novel particularly vulgar or upsetting, but if you don’t want to think about the existence of bodily functions or you don’t want to think about meat coming from animals, a book about a household servant’s life might not be the best reading choice.
There is a theme throughout this novel about the accident of birth. For the Bennet sisters, the lack of a brother born into their family means they must marry money, and fairly quickly, too, to avoid being spinsters dependent on relative’s charity. For the servant girls, Jane’s modest inheritance is something they could work all their lives and never attain. And there are load of illegitimate children in the novel, all reminding the reader that birth is completely random, and social classes are pretty arbitrary.
When the Bingleys take Netherfeld in Longbourn, they arrive with a handsome black coachman. It is pretty strongly implied, although never directly stated to Sarah or claimed by either Bingley, that this is Charles Bingley’s half-brother, by a slave on the Bingley plantation. When we compare the Bingley brothers, one is hardworking, ambitious and determined, and the other is quite pleasant and polite.
In the original, Wickham is a good bit older and more experienced than his fifteen-year-old bride… but here, he’s a full-on predator, offering a tween housemaid some candy if she’ll “be sweet” to him. Gross. And extra gross, because it’s not like a housemaid really had any recourse if that happened.
I really enjoyed almost the whole novel, although Janeite fans might be disappointed to find that Lizzy and Darcy as a minor subplot behind the major stories, like the housekeeper carefully reminding Charlotte Lucas Collins of her skills in order to ensure she can retain her job after the Collins’ take Longbourn.
The ending was a little bit strange, with all of the threads of army desertion and secret parentage only semi-resolved in flash forward about Sarah, with husband and baby, returning to Longbourn and knowing it’s “home.” Despite an ending that’s unsatisfying and vague, I liked the novel for a gritty portrayal of life below stairs in the Bennet house.