I’m almost scared to write another gushing review: what is happening that I can’t discern anything negative in my last five reads, stellar all?!
Jo Baker’s Longbourn, the story of Pride and Prejudice‘s barely-glimpsed servants, manages to stay true to Austen’s romance and create a world, characters, and stories running parallel to the original and yet wholly unique. It is quite the achievement, both homage and uniquely itself, beautifully written and with only, at most, one forgiveably faltering section.
One of Longbourn‘s greatest strengths is its rich characterization of servitude’s silent shadows: Mrs. and Mr. Hill, the two housemaids, Sarah and Polly, and footman, James Smith, how their lives intertwine in profound and interesting ways, how fully-formed their stories are, for example, the as lovely-if-quieter romance between Sarah and James as the ones occurring “upstairs”. I also loved how Baker made Wickham more villainous than he appears in P&P, but in keeping with what we learn about him via Austen. Ultimately, however, it is in the richness, the tragedy and joy, of the servants’ inner lives and relationships that the novel’s strengths lie.
When the novel opened, I thought it would be a condemnation of the serving class’s working-conditions, albeit, expressed with lovely writing. And, it’s true, Baker doesn’t shirk on how difficult their lives were, how little time they had for rest, or the simplest of pleasures; in time, as Baker developped her story, I could see its wasn’t her ultimate purpose, only her context. She never allowed her characters to be defined by their circumstances, but let shine those things that made them human as the Bennets, or as ourselves. If their “working conditions” stood out, and were described in detail, they stood as an indictment of their masters and mistresses. As Sarah notes early in the first chapter: “Each day’s work trickled over into the next, and nothing was ever finished, so you could never say, Look, that’s it, the day’s labour is over and done.” What struck me, as it did Baker, was how constantly they worked, how varied their attitudes towards work: Mrs. Hill used it as an escape, the adorable Polly, something slapdash to be got through, Mr. Hill was beautifully lazy, and Sarah, our heroine and my favourite, as a recognition of where she was in the social strata, but never who she was. She was fearless in her idea of finding fulfillment, of possibility; I was moved when Sarah said to Polly (whose HEA, by the way, is one of the novel’s coolest surprises), ” ‘Do you ever think,’ Sarah asked, ‘that it would be good if there was somewhere else you could go?’… ‘…somewhere you could just be, and not always be obliged to do. Somewhere where you could be alone, and nobody wants or expects anything of you…’ “
Longbourn also contains a wonderful romance, with all the elements we love, one of my favourites being Sarah and James’s first encounter:
‘I don’t know what to make of you at all,’ she said.
‘Please don’t trouble yourself to try.’
She spun away, and clumped off back to the kitchen. He was such a frustrating mixture of helpfulness, courtesy and incivility that she could indeed form no clear notion of him.
A wonderfully rendered “romance” moment: the equal parts attraction, exasperation, and curiosity when heroine meets hero; and, of course, a brilliant echo of Elizabeth’s reaction to Darcy upon their encounter. Plus banter! James is smitten from the get-go, but there be obstacles (no spoilers); his sense of Sarah is marvellously put when I read this metaphoric morsel: “But Sarah. Those clear grey eyes of hers; you could see she was always thinking. She peered at him like he was a slipped stitch: unforeseen, infuriating, just asking to be unpicked.”
At Longbourn‘s heart is Mrs. Hill; her story proves to be as compelling and heart-tugging as Sarah’s, Polly’s, and even Mr. Hill’s. Above all, she is the mother-figure who keeps her little world intact, with her own brand of kindness and love:
There was so much to be thankful for: there was pleasure in her work, in the rituals and routines of service, the care and conservation of beautiful things, the baking of good bread and the turning of rough, raw foods into savoury and sustaining meals. There was pleasure, too, in the little clutch of people that she now had clustered around her. If she could but be certain that they would continue in this manner, that James would settle, that Sarah could be made to see sense, that Polly would become steady and useful; if she could but know that this would tend toward continuance, and not towards dissolution, then she could be quite content.
And yet, Mrs. Hill’s foil is double-fold: firstly, practically, her understanding of the entailment means her safe world can come apart with a new master; then, there’s the Sarah of the intellect and “revolutionary” streak: “It was all as arbitrary and as far beyond their control as the weather. To live so entirely at the mercy of other people’s whims and fancies was, she thought, no way to live at all.” If Mrs. Hill endures; Sarah questions and her questions lead us to a revisionist, revolutionary view of that ultimate P&P dreamscape, Pemberley:
The wagon trundled on, but Sarah’s gaze was stuck; she twisted round in her seat to keep the house in sight. It was so extraordinary: how did it all start, property and wealth and beauty like that? Who staked out a fence, strung out lines and said, This is my land and nobody else’s; these fields are mine, these woods are mine; this water, reflecting the white moon, is mine; and all the fish that swim in the water are mine; and all the birds that fly and roost in the woods are mine; and the very air is mine while it moves over my land; and all of this will be mine, and after I am gone, it will be my son’s; and it will never leave our hands, not while there are still sons left to inherit it. Because there was, there must have been a time before, when the fish swam and the fowl flew and were not anybody’s at all, and the world was young, when Adam and Eve staggered out of Eden all baffled and ashamed.
In the end, Sarah makes a choice and it is her choice, not easy, but hers; our final glimpse of Sarah, James, Mrs. Hill, even Mr. Hill, of Polly too, are people who live full lives, at times, tragic and constricted, at others, joyous and free. And if there’s a price to the HEA, it doesn’t come at the expense of the poorest of the poor.
There was one contrived aspect to Longbourn and it involved James’s backstory, shifting the narrative from Longbourn and England to another time and place, but it didn’t deter from my enjoyment overall. Longbourn is a novel I’ll be thinking about with awe and affection for a long, long time.
Jo Baker’s Longbourn has been out since 2013 and I’m glad I finally cracked my copy open. I hope you do too and that you love it as much as I did.