December 2, 2020
I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Longbourn … reading about the servants’ impoverished lives behind the scenes of the Pride and Prejudice story didn’t immediately grip me, but by the second chapter I was hooked. There’s something about the grittiness of the writing. Jo Baker doesn’t hold back from describing the pig swill, the view of the Pride and Prejudice stars from the point of view of someone who has to wash their soiled ‘linens’ … or the lack of imagination the ‘lovely sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, have for the emotional lives of the maids who do everything for them.
Elizabeth, the hero of Pride and Prejudice, finally nabs Mr D’Arcy but thinks nothing of uplifting Sarah from the Longbourn household to accompany her in her new life, even though she has to spend most of that time sewing in isolation, in some sort of cupboard-like room on the periphery of Elizabeth’s life.
The maids don’t hate the sisters or Mrs Bennett … even though Mrs Hill has good reason to … as you will find out if you read the book. So much is done to these people living on the edge of the Bennett world and so many hardships are endured in silence … poverty makes other things like loneliness, health issues and loss of work so much harder to bear, and the impacts are so much more extreme.
It is not a novel that is periphery, or a half interesting revisiting of the Pride and Prejudice story. It stands proudly on its own feet, with beautiful writing and characters to care about, with lots at stake. It also has a surprising secret at its heart, that unfolds over time. These people have emotional intrigues which are just as intense as the characters they support through gruelling physical work and careful silences.
Just as the Bennett family members fail their servants by not seeing them as complete people, the servants don’t take a huge amount of interest in the hopes and fears of the Bennett girls either. Lydia’s scandalous departure with Wickham is of far less import than other actions taken by that man with too much swagger. And Elizabeth’s marriage to D’Arcy is learned of without build up or particular surprise or interest.
It’s a really good reminder that we are all at the centre of our own story … but merely bit players in the stories being played out by everyone else.