Below Stairs at Longbourn

The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues underneath their clothes. . . . She knew they weren’t as rarefied as angels, and so they just couldn’t look her in the eye.

There have been countless riffs on Pride and Prejudice, from bodice-rippers to mysteries. Usually I avoid these like the plague because I would rather not see a beloved novel or its characters toyed with by a less talented writer. That is, until Longbourn was published to overwhelmingly positive reviews. Jo Baker chose to focus her story on the Bennets’ servants, who are little more than set dressing in the original novel. In other words, they could be fully imagined without stepping on Austen’s toes.

Jo Baker writes in a style reminiscent of Austen without resorting to mimicry. In doing so she manages to capture the spirit of the world while still feeling fresh. The story centers around Sarah, the young housemaid. Sarah grew up as a servant at Longbourn, with the housekeeper Mrs. Hill as a surrogate mother of sorts, but longs to see the world outside of house and village. With the arrival of a new footman, Sarah’s monotonous life begins to change. I love that Longbourn helps me look at a familiar story from a new perspective. Since the servants are largely invisible in Austen’s portrayal of this world, the reader doesn’t stop to think about the labor that makes the Bennets’ lifestyle possible.

Although Longbourn could be enjoyed without being a Pride and Prejudice aficionado, there’s extra fun for lovers of the source material. Baker provides guideposts as to what point Longbourn is at in the original story, such as when the servants reference a dance in Meryton or the impending visit of Mr. Collins. However, these events take on a different meaning below stairs. For example, the Netherfield ball is a great inconvenience since the servants must prepare five young ladies to impress the Bingleys on short notice. Sarah must slog through muddy fields in the rain just to pick up adornments for the girls’ dancing shoes. 

Pride and Prejudice takes place in a harsh era of European history, but the Bennets are completely secluded from war and violence. Even the militia in Meryton seems to exist only to provide suitors for the girls. Since the servants are not as protected from cold reality, Longbourn can also provide historical context that is perhaps hinted at, but never spelled out in the source material. Baker’s aim isn’t to tear down favorite heroines—in fact, she humanizes often mocked characters—but she frames them with a wider lens. A work that can stand up next to Pride and Prejudice is a great achievement. I would encourage any Austen fan to take a look at Longbourn.

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