Jo Baker, Longbourn (Review)
“Never say never” is one of my favourite mottos, though I must admit there are some things I never will do, such as climb Mt Everest, say, or even write a novel. However, when it comes to reading choices, there are certain types of books that are not my preference, such as crime and Jane Austen sequels, but as regular readers will have seen over the years I can be persuaded. And so, I was persuaded to read Jo Baker’s Longbourn: Pride and prejudice, the servants’ story, a Pride and prejudice spin-off, for my local Jane Austen group’s monthly meeting. I can’t say I loved the book, but it did interest me.
So, what’s it about? As the title suggests, it concerns the “downstairs” staff, the servants, at Longbourn, the residence of the Bennet family of Pride and prejudice. These servants appear, either directly or by indirect mentions, in Austen’s novel, but of course we know nothing about their lives. Baker rectifies that in her story by exploring who they are, how they got there, and what their aims and ambitions are. There’s Mr and Mrs Hill (butler and housekeeper/cook), Sarah and Polly (housemaids) and, for a short time, James the footman. The “heroine”, if a poor orphan housemaid with bleeding, chill-blained, “pruney” hands can be called that, is housemaid Sarah. The plot, particularly concerning James and his relationship to Longbourn, is a little melodramatic and the romantic resolution a little predictable for my tastes but it is probably traditional historical fiction fare. The book is well-written, the characters realistic and engaging, and the plot well-paced. I’m no expert in the genre but it is, I’d say, a perfectly fine example.
Baker nicely handles the relationship with the “parent” novel. The downstairs staff are privy, of course, to what happens to the Bennets, so we see many of the scenes, such as Mr Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth and Lydia’s “elopement” with Wickham, through their eyes. They have their own views on the characters and their own reactions to the events. Baker’s imagination of these is completely believable. Mrs Hill, for example, is sympathetic to Mrs Bennet, understanding that much of her behaviour stems from Mr Bennet’s lack of love and respect for her. She is also very aware of the precariousness of the servants’ situation. What will happen when Mr Bennet dies and the estate falls into Mr Collins’ hands? Will there be enough work for them all as the young misses marry and leave Longbourn?
All this was interesting enough, and the story wasn’t so melodramatic that I was turned off, but what mostly captured my attention was Baker’s evocation of the life of servants in Regency/Georgian times. They work hard, and over long hours, sometimes from 4.30am to 11pm. Baker describes in some detail their duties such as laundering and the hand-ruining scrubbing needed to remove stains, the emptying of chamber pots, and the making of soap and other products such as dubbin. Their needs and feelings are rarely considered. Even “kind” employers’ like the Bennets tend to be oblivious of their servants’ lives, just as the thoughtful Anne Elliot in Persuasion doesn’t notice her sick friend Mrs Smith’s nurse. Their living quarters are cramped, in uncomfortable parts of houses, with housemaids often sharing a bed. Through James, the footman, we learn about the awful lives of young men who “take the King’s shilling” and end up fighting in harsh conditions, treated like fodder and at the mercy of corrupt superiors. James realises:
I had handed my freedom right over. I signed it clean away. I sold myself.
In addition to these rather era-specific aspects of the book were references to behaviours that are more universal to relationships involving disempowered people. One relates to naming. There are two such situations in Longbourn. There’s housemaid Polly whose real name is Mary, but
It’s only ‘cos she’s the Miss and I imnt, that she got to be called Mary, and I had to be changed to Polly, even though my christened name is Mary too.
This practice, we know, wasn’t limited to English servants. It happened regularly, for example, with indigenous people, as Kim Scott tells us regarding the naming of Bobby in That deadman dance (my review), and Eleanor Catton regarding her Maori character in The luminaries (my review). Then there’s Bingley’s footman, the mulatto Ptolemy Bingley. When Sarah questions his last name, he says:
If you’re off his estate, that’s your name, that’s how it works.
The other issue that struck me was the way servants watch their masters/employers. I’ve already noted that the employers often didn’t notice their servants, but the servants sure noticed them – and more than was simply required for the work they were employed to do. Servants needed to watch because their lives were closely attached to the fortunes of their masters. Similarly, I’ve read that indigenous Australians watch and know non-indigenous Australians way better than we know them. As indigenous activist Lee says in Margaret Merrilees’ The first week (my review):
You think we can’t see you? You think we haven’t been watching you for two hundred years? We’ve had to find out everything there is to know about you.
These sorts of insights are, for me, one of the prime values of reading historical fiction – the lessons learned about how we’ve been and behaved, and the historical continuities between people and times. It’s for these reasons, in particular, that I’m not sorry I devoted some precious reading hours to reading Longbourn.
Longbourn: Pride and prejudice, the servants’ story
London: Doubleday, 2013
Design: Clare Ward