In general, I am a bit suspicious of the cottage industry that has sprung up around Jane Austen. I don’t usually read books that are “sequels” or “spinoffs” of classic literature (with some major exceptions!), and I think Jane Austen has seen a particular pileup of this sort of thing. So when I was given Jo Baker’s Longbourn as a gift this Christmas, I wasn’t sure whether or not I even wanted to read it! But, wishing to be as amiable as Mr. Bingley, I decided to give it a try.
Longbourn is Pride and Prejudice from another point of view: that of Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah, Polly and James. Who are they? The heart of Longbourn, of course. They are the people who make the meals, who clean Elizabeth’s petticoats when they’re three inches deep in mud (because she’s such a fine walker), who build the fires and replenish the drinks and kill the chickens and polish the furniture and mend the shoes and feed the pigs and haul the water and empty the chamber pots and go into Meryton for the letters that come from the Gardiners. They are the servants.
One of the things I immediately liked about this book is that Baker has created her own, entirely original novel. She uses Austen only for structure, like the boning on the bodice of a gown. Once you accept the premise that servants are people, too, the novel unfolds beautifully, in ways you almost can’t believe you didn’t see before. There are touchstones here and there — this when they go to the Netherfield ball, that’s when Elizabeth goes into Kent — but the family actually appears fairly seldom. It’s a little like opening up a familiar piece of machinery to see how it works, and finding a completely different piece of machinery inside. Baker allows you to realize fairly quickly that everything you see in Pride and Prejudice is made possible by the people you meet in Longbourn.
I also enjoyed Baker’s strong sense of realism. There’s just not a lot of upward mobility as a servant at the turn of the 19th century, even if you have dreams, even if you’re strong-willed, even if you’re in love. Baker shows us what the possibilities are and are not, without being either ridiculously optimistic or too grim. She opens up the corners and consequences of Pride and Prejudice (like Elizabeth’s petticoats, or like Mr. Bennett’s “surprise” for the family that Mr. Collins is going to visit, giving the servants no time to prepare.) She shows us human beings with all their desires and mistakes and compromises, and she happens to observe it in the kitchen and the barnyard instead of in the drawing room.
Baker has a lovely, gentle prose, nothing showy. She writes with a slight touch of formality, as if immersing herself in Austen’s world had given her writing just a slight sheen of Austen’s touch, but her style isn’t nearly as sharp or as funny. Instead, it ripples on, almost an underground style, revealing by erosion rather than by incision. Her characters are reserved and independent, often silent, and give themselves only when they must or when they desire to. The prose reflects that.
When I came to the end of this novel, I thought at first that the ending seemed a little abrupt. I realized, though, that I only felt that way because life in the barnyard and the kitchen goes on and on: Baker found a graceful way to bring this story to a close, but I could have read and enjoyed this novel for weeks. If you’ve been on the fence about it, I do recommend it, entirely on its own merits.