In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.
Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.
Why I Chose It: I greatly enjoy Pride and Prejudice, and really wanted to read this version of the story.
I was extremely excited to read this story because I really wanted to examine the story of the Bennet family from another angle. I love that Elizabeth has a free spirit and walks everywhere through the mud – I’ve never thought about the person who had to wash her skirts. But to be honest I have such mixed feelings about this book that I wasn’t really sure how to review it. I really love parts of this book, but by others I’m troubled.
Connections to Pride and Prejudice
A lot of the servants’ discussions downstairs center around what’s happening upstairs in terms of what needs to be cooked, what needs to be cleaned, and what dresses need to be readied. I could always tell where we were in the original book based on who was visiting, who’s suitcases needed to be packed, and what dresses needed to be repaired for a ball. There are even a few key conversations between the servants and original characters that allow you to understand what is going on with the Bennets. The amount of overlap really did allow me to gain a perspective on the original, and made me pause to reconsider certain parts of Austen’s story.
Yet I found there was also an interesting distance from the original story. We are not being told the exact same story from a different perspective; we were getting a new story that happens to overlap with the original. There was more than ample room for Baker to tell her own story with her own characters, and really allowed those characters to shine. Once these characters take over the story, the distance from the original grows larger, and Longbourn actually extends far past the end of Pride and Prejudice in order to finish the servants’ stories. While there was a level of connection between the two, I almost found there was a disconnect between the events of upstairs to those of downstairs.
The story that Baker creates with the household servants is surprisingly elaborate. All of the characters have really interesting backgrounds, and I enjoyed that time was spent in the novel exploring these backgrounds. It added a really great depth to each of the characters, and as a result I really enjoyed seeing these characters interact with each other and build relationships over time. I also thought the love story felt very genuine and I really enjoyed watching that evolve.
In addition to the characters, the servants’ world is equally dynamic. Baker has amazing descriptions of their lives, and really shows how servants of that day would have gone about cleaning and maintaining a household. Baker highlights the hard labour that the servants go through and the long list of tasks to be accomplished every day. This story really gets into the gritty details of the servants’ lives and I loved how authentic it felt.
The Novel as a Whole
Longbourn does paint Austen’s original story in an interesting light. It gave me just enough details to consider how the servants would have worked through the exciting events in Pride and Prejudice. At the same time I don’t know if those connections were strong enough. While I knew what was going on upstairs, that’s because I know the original story so well, not because I was shown what was actually going on.
I enjoyed Baker’s characters and their story. To be perfectly honest, the servants story could stand on its own. It does not need the connection to Pride and Prejudice at all. These could be servants in any household, and they would have the same conversations and same situations. When I come back to this story in the future it will be for their story, and not for the Bennets.
Did I enjoy this book? Yes. But if you’re looking for a re-telling of the original story, this isn’t it. I enjoyed this book because of the world that Baker creates and the story that she tells. I am recommending this book, not for the P&P connection, but for a solid romance story between two household servants.
Rating: 4 / 5
“The young ladies, all five of them sleeping in their beds, were dreaming of whatever it is that young ladies dream. And over it all, icy starlight shone; it shone on the slate rooves and flagged yard and the necessary house and the shrubbery and the little wilderness off to the side of the lawn, and on the coveys where the pheasants huddled, and on Sarah, one of the two Longbourn housemaids, who cranked the pump, and filled a bucket, and rolled it aside, her palms already sore, and then set another bucket down to fill it too.” (Overdrive, 2013)
“It was pissing it down outside, and confined by bad weather for the morning, the young ladies made the house rattle with noise. From upstairs came the sound of Mary practicing on the piano – it seemed, to Sarah’s untrained ear, rather pleasant: lots of notes, in quick succession, and most of them sounded like the right ones – a laugh from Lydia, hammering footfalls, and then an angry outburst from poor Kitty – “Too many people in this house! Just too many people!” – and then Elizabeth’s calls for peace, and then Jane’s emollient tones, and then, for a while at least, calm.” (Overdrive, 2013)
“The younger sisters’ die-straight locks had had to be tormented into ringlets, which wore out Sarah’s hands and everybody’s patience. The smell of hot hair and pomade followed her through the upper rooms and corridors. It was, to Sarah, the smell of resentment: her hands were already blistered from the flat-irons, her feet throbbed in her boots, her back ached; if provoked at all at this stage of preparations, she might even start deliberately burning hair.” (Overdrive, 2013)