by Jo Baker

Reviewed by Annis

Sweeping away the cobwebs and rattling the skeletons in Longbourns closet, Baker turns Pride and Prejudice upside down by giving centre stage to those barely acknowledged "ghostly presences" whose lives are inextricably entwined with the famous Bennet family: their hardworking household servants.

"There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September". Long before dawn, while the Bennet daughters lie tucked up in their beds "dreaming of whatever it was young ladies dream", Sarah is out in the "icy starlight" drawing water for the arduous weekly wash.

This is the day when the new footman arrives, stirring things up; a mysterious, self-contained young man called James, to whom Sarah is unwillingly drawn. He joins Longbourn’s staff, a close-knit, self-made "family" of four - the two maids, bright, stubborn Sarah and little Polly, Mr Hill the butler and Mrs Hill, housekeeper and tender-hearted domestic tyrant. Meanwhile, life upstairs is galvanized by the forthcoming visit to nearby Netherfield Park of two wealthy, unattached young gentlemen, Messrs. Bingley and Darcy…

Written with delectable irony and a keen eye for detail, this poignant "downstairs" love story is no trite Regency-style romance. Through the parallel lives of its vividly realized characters, we become aware of not only the ambiguous relationship between master and servant but also the world outside the gilded milieu of the Georgian gentry, whose concerns seem trivial set against the harsh realities of war, poverty, the slave trade, and the sort of loss and hardship the Bennet servants have all experienced at some time. They know they are fortunate to have settled positions, but it’s a fragile security. They own nothing and live "entirely at the mercy of other people’s whims and fancies".  Subverting pastiche cliché with its bold shift of perspective, Longbourn offers an Austenian tribute of welcome depth and originality. (2013, 352 pages)

More about Longbourn at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository

A novel mentioned in Longbourn as best kept "for private contemplation":

Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson (1740), about a young female servant pursued by her ruthless employer; a literary sensation condemned as immoral when first published. More info

Other novels borrowing characters from Pride and Prejudice:

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James (2011), a murder mystery written in the style of Austen and set at Pemberley. More info

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough (2008), set twenty years after the close of Pride and Prejudice, when Mrs. Bennet's death frees her daughter Mary to pursue her own interests. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Ladies of Longbourn by Rebecca Ann Collins (2008). More info

Nonfiction about servants and customs during Austen's time:

Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England by Amanda Vickery (2010). More info

Keeping Their Places: Domestic Servants in the Country House, 1700-1920 by Pamela Sambrook (2005). A collection of true stories told by domestic servants themselves. More info

The Complete Servant by Sarah and Samuel Adams (1825). More info


Domestic Servants, Part 1: Women and Part 2: Men at the Life Takes Lemons history blog.

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