Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen–we have read the book, have watched the movie (and TV adaptations), and perhaps have read a spinoff book or two. Women sigh over Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy, literary gurus discuss the authenticity of the films, and men abandon reading Jane Austen books because they think it is just another costume drama or chick lit book (which it isn’t but I will write about why men ought to read Jane Austen another day). Behind the beautiful costumes, the balls, the meals, the teas, there was an army of people who cooked and cleaned and ran errands and mended and drew water and built fires and drove the carriages and did all of the work required for Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, the Bingleys, Mr. Darcy, and all of our favorite characters to live. These were the servants. And the book Longbourn, by Jo Baker tells the story of the little group of servants who worked and cared for the Bennetts.
The time line of the book is mainly the same one with which we are familiar. It opens just before the Bingleys come to Netherfield and ends several months after Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are married. However, it isn’t really about the characters of Pride and Prejudice although they are seen in Longbourn from time to time. Instead, Jo Baker uses Pride and Prejudice’s time line to tell a whole new story about Mrs. Hall and Mr. Hall, about Sarah and Polly and James, about their relationships and secrets and the hard, hard work that they do each day to maintain Longbourn. Jo Baker obviously did a lot of research about the time period and the things that needed to be done each day and each season to live, from drawing the water every morning and starting the fire to making soap, scrubbing petticoats three inches deep in mud, making the many meals each day, and butchering a pig.
I had heard mixed things about the book but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I was quickly drawn in to Sarah’s life. Sarah is the first housemaid and the main character of the book. She was an orphan who was brought to Longbourn as a child to work for the Bennetts. She is hard-working and intelligent, reads novels in her rare spare time, and is very suspicious of the new footman, James, who comes to Longbourn at the beginning of the book. The story of Longbourne is mainly Sarah’s story–the people she encounters, the judgments she makes, the decisions she faces, and the life she makes for herself.
There are misperceptions, secrets, losses, failures, and love in the book. In the end Sarah makes choices for herself that lead her, not to a perfect life, but to the life she most desires. There were a few things I didn’t like. There were parts that were nods to modern ideas, which I thought unnecessary, and a couple of the portraits of beloved characters were unflattering. However, it was fascinating to see what the servants may have thought of the Bennetts and Mr. Darcy. I particularly found the Mrs. Hall’s opinions of Mrs. Bennett and Sarah’s reactions to Wickham and Darcy very interesting. Overall, I liked it a lot and I’m glad I read it.