Longbourn by Jo Baker
It’s the story of Pride and Prejudice, but from the servants’ perspectives instead. Anytime someone in the original story receives a letter, asks for tea, or needs a carriage, the servants in Longbourn make those events happen.
But Longbourn is more than just Sarah, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and the newly-named young housemaid Polly, making dinners and fetching items for the Bennets, watching on as the same events transpire. Darcy is barely mentioned, and Sarah, closest in age and confidence to Jane and Lizzie, never hears of Lizzie’s love for Darcy, or of any of their interactions.
Longbourn instead focuses on the lives of the “downstairs” folk. The story kicks off when a new footman with a shady past, James, shows up and begins working at the estate. Sarah doesn’t trust him, and is upset that he barely looks at or acknowledges her.
The story tells of the hardships endured by the servant class, especially in a time of war, and does a nice job showing the differences between the classes. While the Bennet girls stress over new ribbons and shoe roses, Sarah’s dress is shabby, and her only hope for a new one is when the girls give her their hand-me-downs. She is stuck in a dead-end life, full of nothing but work, and the Hills dream of what they could do with 100 pounds, much less the 10,000 Wickham is promised.
There are a lot of descriptions about how disgusting life was back then as well, and while I appreciated Sarah’s agonizing over the mud on Elizabeth’s dress and shoes because it tied in nicely with the original novel and painted an interesting portrait, I get it. It was gross. There weren’t tampons, everything smelled badly, lice ran rampage, and having a baby was probably the grossest thing to ever have to deal with.
Longbourn talks about sacrifice, about living the best life you’re given, and fighting for love, no matter the cost.
I loved the concept of this book; I liked reading about some of my favorite Austen characters from the perspective of someone who was there, but not really involved in the original story, someone who lived behind the scenes. It was fun to hear the plot told through hushed whispers and while dressing the elder Bennet sisters.
I would’ve liked to see more of this, however. I wanted to see how these events affected the household, more than just how Sarah was smitten with Bingley’s footman. This was slightly down with Wickham and, in a way, Mr. Collins, but, Darcy and Bingley fan that I am, I wanted to know more about what the servants thought of them, too.
Sarah, however, got on my nerves. For someone who was orphaned at an early age and then adopted into a good life of steady work and pay, she is very ungrateful and naive, and despite having grown up in her role, seems to forget her role in the household. Why would the Bennets care about a servant who ran off, other than to be annoyed at the broken contract but relieved they didn’t have to pay the man? While this is ridiculous practice in today’s time, at the time of the novel, it was very commonplace, and Sarah should know better.
I also wasn’t a fan of Mrs. Hill’s backstory. I felt that some of the characterization was forced to make the story fit, but it changed the original characters too much, and they only seemed like shadows of their original selves. I didn’t see the love between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet that was present in the original story, much less Mr. Bennet’s humor, and Lizzie’s character seemed drastically changed by the end, with the implication that her marriage to Darcy quelled some of her more rebellious, free tendencies. Must we all conform when married?
The first two parts of the story were intriguing (re: James’ backstory, which was compelling), but the third part strayed from the canon characterizations, which turned me off.