Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is one of the most beloved of classics, and has been filmed and televised again and again. In Longbourn, Jo Baker takes the reader downstairs among the meal preparations, the endless laundry, boot-polishing and bell-answering by the hard-working servants, much of it shown from the point of view of Sarah, a maid in the Bennett household.
The events of the original book seem like the tip of the iceberg as far as physical activity is concerned – Mrs Bennett’s anxious hanky-wringing, Mr Bennett’s library brooding, Jane and Elizabeth’s thoughtful chats and needlework, while gentlemen call and invitations are answered.
It all drives such an effort in keeping up appearances, the work of which falls to the small staff of Mr and Mrs Hill and two maids, one of whom, Polly, is just a child. Their working day seems to stretch forever, and the reader feels the pain of Sarah’s chilblains and her yearning to see something of the world.
When James Smith appears out of nowhere and is given the job of footman, Sarah is at first awkward around the young man who is put up in a room in the barn, but soon she appreciates the extra pair of hands. The arrival in the district of Mr Bingley (the single man in possession of a good fortune), introduces his glamorous footman, who brings messages.
Ptolomy is a mulatto brought out from the tropics where the Bingleys have a sugar plantation and plans a life of his own making. His arrival offers Sarah a whiff of opportunity, but when Mr Bingley goes back to London, his staff go too, leaving heartbreak at Longbourn above and below stairs.
Tension builds with the arrival of the regiment which causes a sensation in the town, especially for silly young Lydia Bennett. But James tends to vanish when the officers call and Sarah is disturbed by the flogging she witnesses at the garrison. Jo Baker fills out some of the background of the Napoleonic War, the harsh life of the common soldier, the reprisals for desertion – the contrast between officers and regulars echoing the class structure seen at Longbourn.
Jo Baker has obviously done her research because she has vividly recreated the period detail in a way that feels authentic. The story has so much emotional pull, particularly through the sympathy you feel for Sarah and James, I just flew through the pages and was sorry to reach the end. I had been meaning to read Longbourn for ages, but it was well worth the wait. This is undoubtedly my top read so far this year.