Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn has been described as Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey, which is a fairly accurate assessment. Baker turns Jane Austen’s perennial favorite inside out, telling the story of the Bennett family servants during the course of the events taking place in the original novel.
The story centers on housemaid Sarah, who was orphaned as a small child and was practically raised inside Longbourn by the butler and cook Mr. and Mrs. Hill. Sarah is a captivating heroine; a vibrant young woman who yearns for love, affection, and to see more of the world beyond her narrow scope. When a mysterious young man named James Smith shows up at the house and is hired on as footman, stable boy, and coach driver, Sarah is simultaneously intrigued and irritated by him. Sarah finds herself caught between James and Ptolomey Bingley, the handsome footman from Netherfield, the neighboring estate acquired by Mr. Bingley.
Numerous sequels, prequels, and adaptations of Jane Austen’s works have been published and many are unsatisfying. There are any number of reasons for this; chief among them is that few authors can hope to match Austen’s sharp characterization and wit. And her novels conclude so perfectly that it’s somewhat disconcerting, for example, to see conflicts and strife brought into the Darcy marriage, after Austen took so much trouble to get Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy together. Longbourn succeeds because Baker gives us a story and characters that are full and rich in their own right. It would be perfectly possible to enjoy Longbourn without ever having read Pride and Prejudice, although it is a richer experience if one has familiarity with the source. While a huge part of the fun of Longbourn is the glimpses of the Bennetts and the story we know so well from a different angle, Baker doesn’t attempt to recast or reinterpret it (except in very subtle ways), but only to show a different perspective of life in a Regency-era gentleman’s home. She also rounds out a few characters, such as Mr. Collins and Mary Bennett, who are often used as comic relief in film adaptations of the piece. And it’s interesting to find out that Mr. Willoughby is as much a creep belowstairs as he is above.
Those who prefer to keep Regency England as a clean and romantic fictional place may not appreciate Baker’s sharing of the reality behind the way of life of the Bennetts and their friends and neighbors. But those who enjoy well-researched historical fiction will gain added insight into the war that all of those soldiers are fighting in, and how exactly the Bingleys made their money. It’s enlightening to realize that when Elizabeth walks in the mud from Longbourn to Netherfield, someone has to clean her petticoats, and someone has to walk to town in the rain to get the “shoe roses” the Bennett girls decide they must have for the ball, and that at certain times of the month a household with five daughters makes laundry an especially daunting task.
The novel has received some criticism in that a household like the Bennett’s would surely have more than five servants. I have not done the research to find out whether this is likely, but the relative modesty of the Bennett staff as compared to that of the Bingleys and Darcys parallels the varying fortunes of the characters in the original novel, and in that respect seems thematically valid. While the ending perhaps relies on a few too many coincidences, overall Longbourn is one of my most pleasurable recent reading experiences.