If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields. It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah’s hands are chapped and bleeding. Domestic life below stairs, ruled tenderly and forcefully by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman, smelling of the sea and bearing secrets. For in Georgian England, there is a world the young ladies in the drawing room will never know, a world of poverty, love and brutal war.
Since my late teens, I’ve been a huge fan of Jane Austen, and Pride and Prejudice in particular – I thrilled to Elizabeth’s wit, bridled at Darcy’s pride, then swooned at his gallantry – and Jo Baker, in Longbourn, takes a complete fresh approach to this well-loved story, by switching the focus to the characters who must have been there behind the scenes while the balls and tea parties were taking place, making everything work seamlessly yet going largely unacknowledged. Doubleday were kind enough to provide a copy for us to review.
At first, I’ll admit I didn’t find this an easy concept to read; I think it’s difficult to accept a new view of characters and settings you know so well and feel so much affection for. I also made the mistake of coming to the book with preconceptions about the style in which it would be written – of course, Jo Baker doesn’t write Longbourn like a Georgian society novel, because that’s not what it is – but at first I missed the easy, witty reparte of the Austen original. I think I was also surprised by the plainness and hardship of the lives of the servants; I even felt a little aggrieved on behalf of the Bennet girls, as they were portrayed as thoughtless and ungrateful for the attentions of their household servants. But this, then, is the point that Jo Baker wants to make – there’s so much more beneath Society’s veneer which should be acknowledged, stories just as important that should also be told.
The book opens, unapologetically, showing us just how hard, tedious and unending was the work undertaken by servants in a Georgian household, particularly a lesser one such as Longbourn, where four domestics fulfill all the duties. Sarah, the central character, rises before dawn to draw water for washday, the chilblains on her hands already cracked and bleeding before the business of laundry even begins. The plot at first moves slowly, as Sarah and her colleagues struggle through a mountain of chores, but the pace begins to pick up, as did my interest, with the arrival of the mysterious James Smith, employed as a footman by Mr Bennet despite a complete lack of good references. There’s Ptolemy Bingley too, a footman from Mr Bingley’s household, a former slave with ambitions to get to know Sarah better and eventually to open his own business in London. Sarah’s eyes begin to be opened to the possibilities of life and love in a wider world than the Hertfordshire countryside.
Baker’s prose style mixes elements of an older vocabulary style with some more modern-feeling contractions, but also is very frank, using the colloquialisms of below-stairs, the countryside and the military to paint a picture which felt really authentic, at times startlingly so. Sarah witnesses the flogging of a soldier of the militia and Baker’s description brings the scene to life with shocking physicality:
“She felt it in the air, her skin bristling. A breath’s pause, as the men fell into alignment. Then the whip hissed. The thwack and slice of it. The prisoner cried out. Sarah pressed a hand to her mouth. ‘One,’ the sergeant called. Another hiss and thunk of the whip. The man screamed. Sarah let the umbrella fall aside. She put her hand to the wet stone wall.
Another pause. The lash snapping out again. Another cry. She was sure she would be sick. She stood there, heart pounding. Twenty? If they went on like that, they would kill him. She should go back, put herself between him and the pain; they would have to stop. The whip cracked out again. She closed her eyes, and the darkness swam. The snap; the scream. Again, and again. His cries getting weaker now.”
“A brilliantly-researched historical novel which will change readers’ views of a story they thought they knew”
Despite my initial doubts, as Longbourn continued, I was more and more engaged – grabbed by Sarah, her relationships and personal journey and increasingly interested by the historical aspect of the novel, in terms of life below stairs but also the military campaigns of the period, in Spain and Portugal. Baker has achieved something significant in Longbourn; a brilliantly-researched historical novel which will change readers’ views of a story they thought they knew, but will now realise had only scratched the surface of life in Georgian England.
Longbourn is out now, published in Doubleday Hardback, at £12.99