It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
That’s the iconic opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a 19th-century comedy of manners that centers on the Bennett family of rural England. The Bennetts have five daughters and a fiscal situation that dictates each of them must marry to the best possible advantage, as the property laws of the time forbid any of them inheriting their father’s property when he dies. The lengths Mrs. Bennett goes to in pursuit of that goal, and the lengths her various daughters go to either in aid or opposition of her goals, make up the heart of this satirical romance. For all the time spent with the Bennetts, however, Austen gives us very few glimpses of quotidian life at Longbourn, the Bennett family home.
Enter Jo Baker, whose recent novel Longbourn goes “downstairs” to plunge us into the lives of the servants who keep the Bennett household humming. Baker tells us right away what she’s about, with a first line that could be just as iconic as the one Austen wrote:
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
Sarah is one of two housemaids who toils from dawn to dark at Longbourn, cleaning and laundering and sewing and laying fires and emptying chamber pots for five young ladies who scarcely seem to notice their existence, not to mention a mother prone to hysterics and a father who is not nearly as blandly benevolent in Baker’s telling as he was in Austen’s. There’s also a cook, her husband the butler, and a mysterious new footman who sets the servants’ buzzing. Fittingly, romantic intrigue and misdirection shows itself as prevalent belowstairs as it is above.
Each chapter of Longbourn begins with a brief quotation from P&P, which serves to orient the story in the original book’s timeline for readers like me who have read the original enough times to know exactly what passage each epigraph is referring to. Through the eyes of Sarah mostly, we get glimpses of the events of P&P as they would have been experienced by the household help. The arrival of the very rich and very eligible Mr. Bingley in the neighborhood, which sets the entire house aflutter in Austen’s tale, causes barely a ripple for Sarah and the others. In contrast, an event that was a mere throwaway line in P&P, the need to journey into town to buy shoe roses for the Bennett girls to wear to a ball at Bingley’s estate, is expanded into a epic quest for Sarah through a rainstorm, witnessing a flogging, and a chastely romantic encounter with a servant from a nearby estate.
That chapter serves as a perfect microcosm for what Longbourn adds to what is admittedly one of the most perfect novels ever written. Longbourn shines a light into the dark corners of 19th-century life, where the lower classes experienced hardship and dangers arising sometimes from necessity but more often from a mere whim of someone with the power to make them comply. I came away from Longbourn not liking Pride and Prejudice any less, but certainly having a new appreciation for things unsaid and people unseen in the Austen classic.