Book Review: Longbourn
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Gosford Park meets Pride and Prejudice.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters frequent balls, suppers, and smaller social gatherings, where they are always respectably attired.
Who makes sure that they look their best? Who keeps their dresses spotless and in repair? Who styles their hair into perfect ringlets? Who fetches the roses to adorn their shoes?
The servants, of course. In Jo Baker’s Longbourn, the reader is taken into the servants’ quarters of the household, where it is revealed the extent of the backbreaking work: cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, making soap, dusting and sweeping, emptying chamber pots, running to the market, etc.
Sara, a young housemaid, is ambivalent about the work. At times, she takes pride in making the Bennet girls pretty for their balls. She hopes for Jane’s success with Mr Bingley; she appreciates Elizabeth’s attention over sharing books with her. At other times, Sara resents the hopelessness of her position. Is this all her life is meant to be – cooking and cleaning in perpetuity?
The reader is also introduced to Mrs Hill, the housekeeper and cook. A long-time employee of Longbourn, she recognizes that her financial security is reliant on always doing her best. With a keen eye, she knows how each member of the Bennet family operates. She is ready with the opium tincture for Mrs Bennet, whose moods can be overwhelming. She respects Mr Bennet’s private retreat to the library. Only when matters are crucial will she enter his sanctum sanctorum.
Mrs Hill shares the same philosophy with Mrs Wilson, from Gosford Park: “What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation….I know when they’ll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired, and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.”
Life would continue uneventfully, if it wasn’t for the sudden appearance of a ragged young man in search of work. At the request of Mrs Hill, Mr Bennet hires James as the footman. James proves secretive and taciturn, which ignites Sara’s curiosity. She is determined to unravel his mysterious past.
Baker keeps the scope of the novel to the same time frame as Austen’s. What might be thrilling for the Bennet daughters – such as the arrival of the Bingleys at Netherfield – has a very different effect on Sara or Mrs Hill, who has to conjure a respectable dinner at a moment’s notice. By focusing on how these events affect those below stairs, Baker provides an alternative perspective on life during the Regency period.
Baker has a keen eye for detail and description. The prose is beautifully precise and evocative. Overall, I was thoroughly engaged with the story. My only reservation was the sudden shift in narrative style during Part Three. The story itself is still compelling, but suddenly Baker uses shorter chapters, as though the events are propelling forward at a breakneck pace. The problem is that the prose style becomes choppy. I felt as though the author was eager to wrap up the Pride and Prejudice portion of the story so that she could then return to Sara’s and Mrs Hill’s stories.
Any work that challenges the reader’s perspective on a well-known subject is welcome. Because of Longbourn, I doubt I will be able to read Pride and Prejudice in the same way ever again.