‘Longbourn’: the downstairs version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’
Jo Baker’s novel “Longbourn” tells the “Pride and Prejudice” story from the perspective of the servants in the Bennet household. Baker appears Wednesday Oct. 23 at Seattle’s University Book Store.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Longbourn” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle’s University Book Store (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com). She will appear at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Queen Anne Book Co., 1811 Queen Anne Ave. N. Seattle (206-284-2427 or queenannebookcompany.indiebound.com).
by Jo Baker
Knopf, 339 pp., $25.95
The tremendous wave of “Pride and Prejudice” sequels, prequels and various imaginary retellings of the Darcy and Bennet family histories during the past decade and a half may make Jane Austen fans greet the new “Longbourn” with a shudder. Not more ruminations on Elizabeth and Darcy, based more on the pond plunge of hunky BBC star Colin Firth than on the literary original!
As it happens, “Longbourn” is a refreshing departure from the Austen-inspired fictionalizations that have reached a sort of nadir in the current movie, “Austenland.” Author Jo Baker explores the world of the Bennet household and its milieu through the world of the servants, who got an occasional mention from Austen as a backdrop to the goings-on of Jane, Elizabeth and the rest of the family they serve.
Like the domestics in “Downton Abbey” — though in considerably less luxurious circumstances — the Bennet family’s servants imagined by Baker have richly complicated lives and loyalties.
Their arduous and malodorous jobs are described in detail, right down to the cracked and chilblained hands with which the maid Sarah scrubs the household linens in lye soap.
Austen fans already know the five Bennet girls and their parents: the vain and shallow mother, the ironic escapist father. Now we see them through the eyes of the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, a woman with some secrets of her own. Eyeing Elizabeth Bennet, who is coolly sipping her coffee after refusing the proposal of Mr. Collins, Mrs. Hill reflects: “What it is to be young and lovely and very well aware of it. What it is to know that you will only settle for the keenest love, the most perfect match.”
The servants are there when all the crucial events of “Pride and Prejudice” take place — when, for example, Sarah admits the “big glossy” Mr. Darcy to the Collins house to propose to Elizabeth, and when he abruptly leaves afterward (while Elizabeth weeps in vexation).
But Sarah isn’t thinking about Darcy and Lizzy; she is mentally composing a letter to her own lover, James, a footman who has mysteriously arrived at the Bennet household and just as mysteriously disappeared.
Meanwhile, there are all those linens to wash, boots to black, culinary chores to complete and floors to scrub. No wonder Mrs. Hill observes that life was “a trial by endurance, which everybody, eventually, failed.”
Baker creates an intriguing world that takes considerable license with the Austen original (Mr. Wickham is even more wicked; Mrs. Bennet has had not only the five daughters, but also a stillborn son who would have secured the family’s future). For once, here is an Austen sequel that does not dwell on Mr. Darcy’s romantic prowess, and for that alone, Baker deserves a bouquet.
Melinda Bargreen (www.melindabargreen.com) is the former classical-music critic for The Seattle Times. She’s a freelance contributor to the Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM.