Longbourn by Jo Baker
“If Elizabeth had the washing of her petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.”
It seems only natural that trailing on the success of intimate portrayals of servant life like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs that someone would think to reimagine servant life at the Bennett household. Few would imagine, however, the startlingly perfect interpretation that is Jo Baker’s Longbourn. Baker describes life “below stairs” with an unflinching honesty, depicting the hard lives and the constant struggle of the servants at Longbourn and the lower classes. The threat of the entailment seems more real when we as readers step back from Mrs. Bennett’s boisterous complaints to Mrs. Hill’s quiet contemplations about how she will survive if Mr. Collins brings his own servants. She, unlike Mrs. Bennet and her daughters, has no allowance.
Told through Sarah’s perspective, as a housemaid at Longbourn, the aspects of Pride and Prejudice that simmer beneath the surface, are told in detail, adding a darker, more realistic portrayal of the story. In Loungborn we see tales of war and army life and the gap between the landowning gentry and the working classes.In addition we see Austen’s characters in a different light, speifically Mr. Bennett, and the injustices of women’s second class position in society. Hints of the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy abound but are quickly forgotten amidst Sarah’s relationship with John Smith which is equally romantic.
If Jane Austen’s books are said to sparkle with their wit and characters then Jo Baker’s story is a novel of a different kind. Longbourn doesn’t sparkle. It instead has the freshly scrubbed appearance of a kitchen table in the servant’s hall, It’s clean and honest but a little raw.