A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Washington DC (well, National Harbor, Maryland). This is always a fun conference filled with fascinating people and exciting sessions on revamping and re-energizing literature and writing curricula. My favorite part of the conference, though, is always the free books. Well, free and severely reduced in price books. All of the major publishing houses send representatives to peddle their wares to education professionals looking to build their classroom libraries…and, let’s be real, their personal ones, too.
I found my favorite bookseller from my previous visit to the conference and proceeded to pick his brain for recommendations on the best new titles. Ultimately, I settled on Longbourn by Jo Baker. (Not free but very reasonably priced!) Longbourn tells the stories of the servants at Longbourn, the Bennett house, during the events depicted in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It focuses on the housemaid, Sarah; the cook and head housekeeper, Mrs. Hill; and James, the new valet. Also serving in the house are Polly, the 12-year-old maid, and Mr. Hill, the butler. The story begins shortly before the arrival of the Bingleys to Netherfield with the appearance and very sudden hiring of James at Longbourn. Sarah and James get off to a rocky start, Mrs. Hill copes with the resurgence of a long-ago secret, and a handsome and ambitious servant from the Bingley house begins to form what Mrs. Hill considers an improper interest in Sarah. From there love, life, scandal, and heartbreak happen all while the Bennett women obliviously live their lives upstairs.
I first want to say that I thought this was a delightful book. I did have a few concerns, but I was completely enchanted by the upstairs/downstairs look at the Pride and Prejudice story. Baker, whose family historically worked in service, takes less-than-marginal characters mentioned once in Austen’s text (the valet who serves at dinner, the “proxy” who goes to town to buy the shoe roses before the ball at Netherfield) and creates a vibrant yet realistic story of service men and women with inner lives just as rich as their employers’. It’s a marvelously original conceit, and, for the most part, Baker executes it well.
Though Sarah is not a completely consistent character, she is a beautifully complex one and a strong protagonist on which to hang the plot. She entered service after her parents’ deaths, old enough to remember a time before non-stop hard work and therefore yearn for something more from her life. James is a worthy match for Sarah, worldly yet steady where she is restless and half unmoored, and Mrs. Hill puts me firmly in mind of Mrs. Hughes from Downton Abbey. Perhaps the most interestingly drawn servant, though, is the one who speaks and draws focus the least: the butler, Mr. Hill. Baker does so much with his near-tragic character in such little space that he becomes a most powerful afterthought.
A few characters, however, disappointed me. First is Polly, the 12 year old housemaid. At least she tells us (and the sinister Mr. Wickham) she is 12, almost 13, but Baker paints her more like a 7 year old. In fact, I had to remind myself multiple times that she was almost a teenager. The reason this fact is unsettling is because of her complete naivete regarding Wickham’s clearly inappropriate baiting of her. She claims to not understand is overtures, and obviously sex education was different in the early 1800’s, but, at the very least, she’s definitely old enough to recognize stranger danger.
The other one was Elizabeth. Though not the focus, the Bennett girls are still significant characters in the story, but I was so confounded by Baker’s depiction of Elizabeth. Rather than the feisty, intelligent, and slightly rough-around-the-edges Lizzie that we all know and love from Austen’s novel, Baker presents us with Jane-lite. She describes Elizabeth’s beatific luminosity and gentleness of spirit multiple times, and later, after Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage, she depicts a relationship through the lens of a timid and unhappy Elizabeth, terrified of disappointing her husband and new staff with the slightest error in dress or manner rather than the Beatrice and Benedick of the Regency period. Honestly, the inconsistencies between Austen and Baker’s Elizabeth shouldn’t matter, except that the original novel and its protagonist are so well known and beloved that it almost turns what is a wonderfully inventive idea for a novel into a cheap trick.
Almost. What saves this novel is its focus on the story. Baker is choosing to create these characters’ stories rather than use them as proxies to comment on social norms, as Austen does. Elizabeth’s inconsistencies still feel sticky to the reader, but they are simply not of enough importance to derail the novel entirely. And despite the use of “sweetie”, “honey”, and “sweetheart”, which feel jarringly modern in that generic historical voice, Baker’s language is beautifully evocative, particularly in the descriptions of the mundane that make up these servants entire worlds. I thoroughly enjoyed Longbourn, quibbles of character aside, and I would definitely recommend giving it a read.