June 19, 2015

Longbourn - Jo Baker

Vintage Canada, 2013

Four Stars

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never actually read Pride and Prejudice – but on the bright side, I can safely say that it is not necessary to read the Jane Austen classic in order to fully enjoy its companion novel, Longbourn. Jo Baker’s take on Pride and Prejudice puts the below-stairs servants at center stage, instead of fading into the background of the Bennet household. Elizabeth, Jane, and the rest of the Bennet family continue to dream, dance and charm potential husbands; however, now the servants have dreams and families of their own.

In her endnote, Baker tells us that the footman appears just once in the original novel. Here, he takes on a life of his own as James Smith, and his connections to Longbourn deepen as the story develops. The title of the novel is also the name of the Bennet house, and I think it also signifies that the servants are the house – it couldn’t exist without them. The servants also humanize the house: they know all the earthy secrets (smells, stains, etc. are all described in detail) of the seemingly ethereal Bennet sisters. That’s not to say that the servants don’t make secrets of their own, and James’ meeting with the maid Sarah is only the beginning.

The contrast in courtship above and below stairs could not be clearer. While the gentlemen upstairs require a wife who is “biddable” and “amiable” (p. 111), James’ love of Sarah is pure, and he only wishes for her to be happy without dragging her into his own mysterious troubles. Sarah, meanwhile, values her independence and has no wish to rely on a husband: “To live so entirely at the mercy of other people’s whims and fancies was, she thought, no way to live at all” (p. 168). In this desire at least, she is more fortunate than the Bennet girls – she will have to work hard, but she does have the option to make her own life, with or without James.

Because Sarah realizes that she can control her own destiny, her path veers from the maternal housekeeper, Mrs. Hill. For a while it seems Sarah is doomed to repeat Mrs. Hill’s mistakes, in which she sacrificed too much for her employers and realizes it too late: “It had been a dreadful miscalculation, she saw that now: that all of them should be unhappy so that he [Mr. Bennet] should not be disgraced” (p. 223). Instead, Sarah makes her own decisions, regardless of the risk. Although she finally accepts her place at Longbourn, she also fully understands Heraclitus’ words and Mr. Bennet’s advice that you can’t step into the same river twice. Longbourn is the Bennets’ house, but for the family of servants below-stairs, it is also home.

Four stars for a solidly-written story filled with some great unexpected twists, which stands on its own beside the original. Now I may finally have to read Pride and Prejudice!

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