Jo Baker
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Buy *Longbourn* by Jo Baker online

Jo Baker
352 pages
October 2013
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Baker turns Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice on its head, exploring the upstairs escapades of the Bennet family through the point of view of Elizabeth Bennet’s domestic housemaid, Sarah. Illustrating the complex relationships between commoners and aristocrats, including the range of socially and economically diverse people between those extremes, Baker’s novel is about the price paid for those living “downstairs” and their romantic ambitions within the context of early nineteenth-century bourgeois social ethics.

Containing a veritable jigsaw puzzle of well-known and eccentric personalities that Austen aficionados will readily identify with, the tale centers on Sarah, her friend Polly, and the butler and housekeeper—Mr. and Mrs. Hill—and their life of loyal service to the well-to-do Bennet family. Baker makes no apologies for presenting servant life at Longbourn House as a constant daily grind where Sarah and Polly are required to wash Miss Elizabeth and her sisters’ petticoats and empty their nightly chamber pots, which often have that “dreadful slopping thunk of solids.”

We witness the “silent fatigue” and constant rubbing of their hands in pots of goose grease to alleviate the stinging chilblains, the smell of onions and kitchen soap, and the clumping down onto the basement floors while the young silk-draped ladies upstairs make the house “rattle with noises.” Sarah was only seven years old when she came straight from the poor house to Longbourn. Since then, she’s known little else but sore, cracked fingers and the limp folds of her bile-covered dress.

A lost Cinderella of sorts, Sarah’s only solace comes from the converted snatches of conversation and muffled laughter heard in the rooms of Elizabeth, Lydia and Jane, who talk endlessly of the coming winter balls, rowdy card parties and the trials of finding a husband. Through Sarah’s eyes, the Bennet girls are seen as a bundle of fluttery frocks, pitching themselves at every unmarried man who comes their way. As Sarah dresses Miss Elizabeth (with her “copper-bottomed sense of self-importance”), all coiffed and beautiful and luminous, Sarah knows full well that she will never go to her ball.

As our narrator, Sarah seems full of ideas beyond her place. She clearly resents a life that seems so dim and meaningless. She does have standards, however, and a fully operating moral compass, but abandons her high road when handsome, enigmatic James Smith arrives to take up a position at Longbourn. Sarah wants something—anything—to disturb the quiet and to distract her from the sounds of Mr. Hill's “revolving mastication” and the prospect of another “spiritless evening.” With the presence of James, change comes to Longbourn. Within the House and its “bare treads, and its green, distempered walls,” James proves to be a frustrating mix of helpfulness, courtesy and incivility.

Baker attempts to underline Sarah (and James’s) pain, balancing their existence with the proper mix of love and desire. While Sarah is distracted by exotic footman Ptolemy Bingley and his “twining smoke and his dark eyes,” Baker takes us deep into James’s fractured, military past and his connection to the web of complicity hovering around the visiting regimental men. Because this is essentially James and Sarah’s story, Baker provides us with only a shattered glimpse of Mr. Collins, Mr. Whickham, and wealthy Mr. Darcy, who seem to come and go from the Bennet household in a flurry of uniform red.

In vivid prose, Baker writes intractably of Regency life, embedding Sarah’s existence deep into the outhouses and stately grounds of Longbourn. Her only chances of happiness come when she thinks of Netherfield and London and the wide sweep of the world beyond the dark panes of her attic window, “beyond a life of shared bedchambers and scrutiny.” The author has captured an iconic literary novel and has turned it into something exquisite and heartbreaking while treacherously stripping her embattled heroine of civilized encumbrances and leading her to where she needs to go and what she needs to do to carry on.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2013

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