• Pride and Prejudice was only half the story •
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take centre stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.
Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realised world that is wholly her own.
I remember a little while ago, in an online discussion about Pride and Prejudice, a very conservative woman explained that she much prefers historical fiction because back then everyone had morals and nobody had sex before marriage. When she was politely informed that her dashing Mr Darcy more than likely had a mistress or at least casual alliances before marriage, she got the internet version of the vapours.
Reviews of Longbourn have been mixed, and while I’m not going back to read any negative reviews – I loved this book so much I don’t want it spoilt – I think this was part of the problem.
You may call this Pride and Prejudice fan fiction, but I see it more as a separate story written within the story of P&P. It follows along the same timeline, and the antics of the Bennet family dictate the lives of the characters below stairs, but it picks up on the original work here and there, rather than simply playing around with Jane Austen’s characters.
Why did I love this book? Because it’s real in a way not even Austen’s books are real. Historical romance (and its readers) wax poetic about the Regency era because it’s viewed as a fairy tale time. Pretty clothes and pretty manners. Everyone was gorgeous and nobody did anything wrong unless they were the villain.
Nobody stops to ask if the wealth of the gentlemen comes intertwined with less than lovely things; slavery, for example. Television adaptations have painted Mr Bennet as such a dorky, loveable father the character as Austen wrote him has all but disappeared. Mrs Bennet has been reduced to silly and vain, and the cause of this is more often than not forgotten. People forget that in war, bad things happen, and not all of those bad things are always committed by the bad guys.
If you’re in historical romance for the fairy tale, I can see that you might not love this book as much as I do. However, I thought the relationship at the heart of the book, between two servants, was at least as powerful as any between the outspoken gentleman’s daughter and the rakish duke.
Also, it’s not often that a book surprises me with plot twists, but this one did.
Jo Baker’s writing works for me. She captures an action or an experience in a few words and really brings everything to life. She has a real skill for making you understand something without over-explaining it.
One thing I didn’t love was her obsession with just how dirty everything was. I heard more about bodily functions than I needed to.
If you’re like me and grew up wondering why those tragic Austen heroines were so poor when they had a houseful of servants, then Longbourn is the sort of book you should try.
If you (and there’s NOTHING wrong with this!) pick up books in this genre for The Rakish Duke of Desire Tempted by the Innocent Wallflower, then Longbourn is a bit of slap in the face with the gritty reality of early nineteenth century Britain.