Oh how I enjoyed Longbourn and I speak as one who is sometimes a bit wary of Austen prequels and sequels, but this was totally intriguing. The sub-title is Pride and Prejudice, the Servant's Story and we are given to view the Bennet family and the ups and downs of the family through the eyes of those below stairs.
First thing to say is that we are so used to loving Elizabeth and Jane and thinking how delightful they are and it comes as a slight shock to see them portrayed as rather careless of the feelings of their servants and how they take them for granted. I suppose this is how they were viewed in general at the time but it took me back a bit. True, they give Sarah their maid a cast off dress or two and are fond of her but they think nothing of sending her into the village in dreadful weather to purchase some rosettes for their dancing shoes which, ironically, results in her coming down with a fever and a cold similar to that suffered by Jane when she rode over to Netherfield Hall.
Sarah is up at dawn on washday and her hands are chapped and bleeding. "If Elizabeth Bennett had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields". Readers of Pride and Prejudice are used to thinking of Elizabeth as active and lively and a good sister who walks to the Hall when Jane is ill, we never think of the hard work this entails at laundry time.
The well known story of the romantic ins and outs of the Austen novel only impinge in a practical way on those below stairs and I found it disconcerting at first until I settled into the story. Mr Collins is dealt with in a much more sympathetic manner as a rather nervous young man unsure of himself and his reception. We are also given the hint that Mary liked him and would have married him but he chose Charlotte Lucas instead. I have long wondered why he wanted Jane and then Elizabeth when the perfect wife in the younger sister was awaiting him.
A new manservant is taken on - one James Smith and Mr Bennett appoints him without consulting the housekeeper Mrs Hill which is unusual and her reaction alerts the reader that there is a mystery lurking which is not too difficult to solve. Sarah is very much attracted to him but he seems to be indifferent to her and wishes to remain private and keep his past history very much to himself. The family are delighted to have a handsome footman to drive them around and he takes them to the ball at the local assembly rooms where we know they first meet Darcy and Binley:
"It was one of those strange handicaps that afflicted gentlefolk, that they could not open a door for themselves, nor get in and out of a coach without someone to assist them......the young ladies streamed out like chicks from a hencoop, rustling gowns, each of them clasping the servant's hand for a moment....their faces radiant with the evening"
and then back home where Sarah is waiting for them with tea and sitting up late despite the fact she has to get up at the crack of dawn as usual.
I found Longbourn a fascinating take on Pride and Prejudice and Jo Baker makes us look at the Austen characters in a totally different way. We see hardly anything of Bingley, Wickham is made out to be even worse than Austen portrayed him, we feel sorry for Mrs Bennett at the contempt with which her husband treats her and Mr Darcy seems even more forbidding than he normally is:
"He rose from his seat like a statue come to life. Sarah shrank. Fixed for the first time on her, his gaze made her dwindle to the size of a salt-cellar. He strode briskly up, stopped just a bit too close; she had to fight the urge to take a step back, to get a better angle on him, to make more space between her and his flesh"
In the end what makes this book so interesting and so delightful, is the feeling of family between the servants. Mr and Mrs Hill have a convenient marriage with affection and friendliness for each other; Polly the young orphan girl is loved and nurtured and protected from the attentions of Wickham; Mrs HIll and Sarah have almost a mother/daughter relationship. The parallel lives of those above and below stairs and their relationship is at the centre of this book and it is this which lifts it way above the usual Austen related stories that appear regularly on the market.
On re-reading this post it seems to me to be a bit fragmented but I merely wish to give you a taste of the book without giving too much away. We all know what happens to the Bennets but I want to leave you wondering what happens to James, Sarah, Polly and Mr and Mrs Hill. This is a wonderful book and I will be keeping this on my Austen shelf as pretty sure I will wish to read it again.
My grateful thanks to Tess at Transworld who very kindly sent me a copy for review.