Longbourn by Jo Baker
We’ve been binge-watching the final season of Downton Abbey at home this past weekend. I truly adore that show not just for its historical accuracy and its depiction of the lives of both servant and master, but also because of the amazing costumes and the delicious wit. I will be sad to see the farewell, but I like how they have been setting up things for the finale thus far.
Downton Abbey draws a lot of parallels to the book Longbourn by Jo Baker. It would be easy to say it is the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen told from the point of view of the servants of the Bennet household. But it is so much more than that. Because the lives of the Bennet sisters hardly signify at all in this narrative, and that is a rather poignant remark on class society.
I read several interviews with Jo Baker on her writing of Longbourn. In one with Hazel Gaynor she says, “But it was on one re-reading of P&P that I just got stuck on a phrase, and couldn’t get past it. It’s the week before the Netherfield ball, it’s been raining for days, the footpaths are awash, the roads are deep in mud, there’s no way the Bennet girls are going to venture forth, and so, ‘The very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.’ I just thought, ‘who’s proxy?’ and everything else followed on from that.”
Indeed! We know the housekeeper’s name is Mrs. Hill, but none of the other servants are named, even though they did a great deal of work behind the scenes. Jo Baker did a marvelous job creating lives and characters out of the unnamed housemaids and footman. In fact, she did an ingenious job of incorporating the two novels so they flow together, with the servants’ stories on top, with a little-noticed undercurrent of the perils and trials of Miss Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters.
I also loved that Baker gives us different perspectives of the characters created fully by Austen. Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins are, in Baker’s eyes, more than just the comic relief. There are reasons their personalities developed they way they did. I found I had new-found sympathy for some characters and less for others I originally liked.
But beyond that is the story itself. Mostly it is told from the point of view of Sarah, the teenage housemaid. An orphan, she has a very comfortable situation for someone who might otherwise have grown up in the poor house. True, her work is exhausting and grueling, but she has food in her belly and a warm bed in which to sleep. For her station in life, she isn’t doing too badly.
What her employers don’t understand, however, is that she has a brain and a heart and desires and wishes for herself. So when a footman from the Bingley household starts paying her attentions, her world is rocked. Not just because she finds him attractive as well, but who on earth has ever paid her a speck of attention before? And just what are the intentions of Ptolemy Bingley, the footman? Is he a Wickham or a Darcy?
I’m a sucker for good historical fiction, and I sucked this one right up. I also learned that the best way to clean hardwood floors is to drop damp tea leaves around and sweep them up. They catch all the dust and hair that are shed without blowing them around. I may have to drink more tea and give that a whirl someday.