What a clever, almost mischievous book this is; to look at Jane Austen’s Bennet girls from backstage – or, rather, from below stairs. Jo Baker writes utterly convincingly about the lives of servants labouring in the Longbourn of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Of the ceaseless, thankless tasks involved in keeping the Bennets clothed, fed, watered and tidied-up after – and not least, helping to prepare the troupe of unmarried sisters, Lizzie and the rest of them, fit for suitable male inspection. A funny, often moving, take on a timeless literary classic.
Jo Baker is a clever chicken and no mistake. This novel is a deft piece of fiction, and will fully engage lovers of Jane Austen, and in particular her masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice.
Baker takes us backstage - or rather, below stairs - at the Longbourn of Pride and Prejudice; that rustic yet high-class, demi-aristocratic world of the Bennet family. Yes, those Bennets - papa, mama, and the chorus-line of unmarried daughters that Mrs Bennet is so desperate to marry off to suitable husbands.
The cleverness of Longbourn is to give us a completely different perspective on the lives of the Bennets. From the outset Baker makes it almost painfully clear how grinding and humiliating life was for below-stairs servants in the 'golden' Georgian era.
A maid is described carrying a Bennet chamber-pot downstairs first thing in the morning. She is only relieved that it makes a slopping, watery noise as it sways in her arms. Not the horrid, clumping, thunking sound of solid waste. Eeurghh.
Another mop-capped servant finds her hands horribly chapped and cracked by the intense washing she must conduct on one of the Bennet girl's undergarments. These must be pristine before being returned, dried and pressed, to the fragrant bedroom upstairs.
As one reads about such travails and humiliations (and there is much humour in the descriptions) you realise how hugely supported Georgian families were by the virtual slaves who lived beneath and amongst them. Don't worry; this isn't right-on, up-the-workers stuff at all. But it will make you read Austen with a different eye in future.
Richard is right about all the social stuff - but Longbourn is much more than a chronicle of below-stairs hardships. It is a romantic adventure too, with the servants who must tend the Bennets experiencing just as much drama and romance as the scented, coiffed, and pomaded young women upstairs.
This book has accurately been subtitled: 'Pride and Prejudice; The Servants' Story', and so it is. I loved it. I loved the meticulous descriptions of the dawn-to-dusk lives of the people who attended to families like the Bennets', but I especially liked Jo Baker's fantastic introduction of a mysterious stranger who insinuates himself into below-stairs life at Longbourn.
Sarah, a much put-upon maid, is intrigued by the arrival of a dark stranger. Dark-skinned, hazel-eyed, and with enough charm to get himself a job as footman within minutes of arriving at Longbourn.
Jo Baker writes him so well - from the moment he appears in the household we know he has a past; a story; a secret - but she cunningly keeps all of it from us - and Sarah - until she is ready to lift the curtain on a spectacular second act.
This is one of the most atmospheric, witty, and cheeky takes on one of our foremost novelists I have ever read. I suppose some Austen devotees might be in some way offended by it, but not me. I loved it - and so has everyone I know who's read it. I think Austen herself would have chuckled.