Another in an occasional series and another that I’ve already finished.
Fans of Jane Austen will either love or hate Longbourn. It is Jo Baker’s novel about the servants of Pride and Prejudice who appear there in brief snippets. Do not expect to see or hear Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy flirting or disputing. There will be no leisurely strolls through the countryside or comfortable carriage rides.
Baker chose to tell this version mostly from the point of view of Sarah, the daughter of a weaver whose parents die, leaving her in the poorhouse. The housekeeper at Longbourn takes Sarah in. Mrs. Hill trains the little girl. She lugs water, fetches wood, carries out the “night water” and worse, washes the clothes, and on and on from long before the family arises until after they’ve returned from the various balls and other outings. That laundry, with its soaking and scrubbing and bleaching, along with the soap making after the pig is killed, plays a significant role with vivid descriptions of the days before disposable diapers and sanitary napkins.
Sarah’s tale grows complicated when Mr. Bennet hires the taciturn and illusive James Smith to assist the elderly butler Mr. Hill. Further complications ensue when Mr. Bingley and his handsome, polished mulatto servant with the outrageous name of Ptolemy Bingley arrive at the grand estate up the road.
Though the servants pay little attention to the doings of the gentry, they take keen interest in the romantic affairs of the Rev. Mr. William Collins. As described in the original, Mr. Bennet has no male heir. The good reverend will thus inherit Longbourn on Mr. Bennet’s death. In ancient British common law, that was called the entail, meaning that the property went from oldest male heir to oldest male heir, ad inifinitum. Under that rule, Mr. Collins has exclusive power to decide the fate of Mrs. Bennet and any unmarried daughters, along with Longbourn’s servants. Their positions are by no means secure as these are times of upheaval with “Boney” conquering Europe and the Luddites facing down the industrialists on the home front.
Baker weaves a narrative that encourages page turning. I stayed up one night till 2. The characters – Mr. and Mrs. Hill, little Polly, and most especially Sarah – live in memory. It falters somewhat three-quarters of the way through as the story backtracks to Mrs. Hill’s younger days.
The big omission is the acerbic wit that defines the original. Sarah’s observations lack that twist. She does not mock her fellows, and she’s too intimidated and too busy to make fun of the gentry.
So follow Longbourn for the Restoration story. Go back to Austen for the “little bit … of ivory” with its drops of acid on the side.