In Jane Austen’s classic, Longbourn is the Bennett family residence. In Jo Baker’s re-imagining, we see behind the facades of the rich and get a glimpse of the world inhabited by the servants. While the Bennett sisters search for husbands, their housemaid Sarah toils away in the kitchens, washing their underclothes and scrubbing the sheets until her hands bleed. While the ladies of the house are swept off in carriages, she walks for hours in the rain to fetch bows to decorate their shoes. While they get new dresses and go to balls, she relies on hand-me downs and darning and looks forward to a village knees up on her rare night off.
But while we all know the fate of the Bennett sisters, Sarah’s fate is much less certain. While Mr Bailey’s arrival sends the family into a tailspin, it’s his handsome footman that turns Sarah’s head. His knowledge of the world and his ambition to leave his position and set up for himself makes Sarah question everything about her life. At the same time, the new footman at Longbourn, James, seems too good to be true, and Sarah is determined to uncover his secrets.
The housekeeper, Mrs Hill, rules the household with an iron fist, but at the same time, cares for Sarah and the other servants as though they are her own flesh and blood. She has her own past and her own secrets, and she’s determined to keep Sarah from repeating her mistakes.
Sarah spends a lot of time reflecting on the differences between her life and the gilded lives of the Bennetts. She longs to work for her own benefit, rather than someone else’s, but sees very little opportunity for her to achieve her dreams, believing herself destined for a life of serving others. In the end, will she have the courage to go beyond the limits and create a future where she can truly be happy?
Jo Baker really brings to life the reality of being a servant at this time – with no rights and no voice. The servants at Longbourn are entirely dependent on the Bennett family and those around them. People from the outside have the ability to destroy their lives and leave them destitute on a whim, a fact that we are reminded of multiple times throughout the novel. They have little choice but to go where they are told to go and to shoulder the responsibility of backbreaking work from dawn til dusk.
Longbourn is gritty and genuine and in some points mundane, and it really makes you have a new appreciation for modern inventions like flushing toilets and washing machines! The author doesn’t just take us below stairs at Longbourn, she also manages to give us a fascinating insight into what life was really like for the lower classes – taking us from the battlefields in Spain to the road labour crews roaming the England looking for work.
It is quite slow moving and the narration style lacks a sense of urgency and tension. This fits with the classic style of Pride and Prejudice that it’s mirroring but it does takes away some of the drama.