Longbourn by Jo Baker

Reviewed by Harriet Devine

Jo Baker has had the brilliant idea of writing, not a sequel, but an account of what goes on below stairs in Pride and Prejudice. All the events upstairs follow precisely those in Austen’s novel, but here we see their implications for the servants. Lizzie walks through the fields to see Jane at Netherfield, and Sarah has to scrub the mud off her petticoats and clean her filthy boots:

If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them”.

The family goes to the ball and the servants have to stay up until they arrive home, despite having to rise again a few hours later to clean out the fireplaces and light the stove. The Bingleys come to dinner and the whole kitchen is in an uproar getting everything prepared. Wickham turns up and is even more wicked than Austen makes, him, attempting to seduce young orphaned Polly, the scullery maid. And of course, the servants are worried that when Mr Collins inherits the house, they’ll all be out of jobs.

But all this, though fascinating, is not the whole story, obviously. At the centre of the novel is Sarah, the maid, who has been taken in as a child by Mrs Hill, the housekeeper (and here also the cook, apparently a common arrangement in smaller houses). She is clever as well as pretty, and Mr Bennett lets her borrow his books:

She bobbed a curtsy, and took her money up to her room, and put it away in her wooden box, along with the previous quarter’s pay. If she could find it, and it was writ in English, she would borrow Heraclitus from the library.

She’s always longed to see more of the world, and especially of London, though when she does get the chance – accompanying Lizzie to visit the Collins household – she is less than impressed. She catches the eye of gorgeous Ptolemy Bingley, the mulatto footman who, we are encouraged to suspect, is probably the son of Bingley’s father, born a slave on his sugar plantation, and thus Bingley’s half-brother. Such things were very common, of course, and in fact one such liaison has an important part to play in the plot, but I don’t want to spoil it for you by revealing any more.

The great thing about this novel is that you don’t need to have read Pride and Prejudice to enjoy it, though of course that does add a huge amount to the pleasure of it. But Jo Baker has done her historical research, and as well as the everyday life of domestics in early 19th century Britain she has also incorporated a whole section on the horrific experiences of soldiers in the Peninsular War. It’s also a love story, and one which is every bit as filled with pain and uncertainty as any of Austen’s own novels. Altogether a great read, and highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Jo Baker, Longbourn (Black Swan, 2014). 448 pages.

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