Labour at Longbourn

by
29 November 2013

Prudence Fay enjoys a below-stairs version of a genteel classic

 

Longbourn: Pride and Prejudice, the servants' story
Jo Baker
Doubleday £12.99
(978-0-857-52201-6)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT205 )

SPIN-OFFS from classic novels seldom work. Even as good a writer as P. D. James, in Death Comes to Pemberley, failed to bring to life the beloved characters from Pride and Prejudice. But Longbourn is different - not a sequel or prequel, but a story of those members of the Bennet household whom Jane Austen ignores: those who wash the muddy petticoats, starch Mr Bennet's neck-cloths, empty the chamber-pots, drive the carriage. These people rate scarcely a mention in Pride and Prejudice itself: we know the housekeeper is called Hill, but of Austen's "two housemaids" only Sarah is named, and then only once - in Chapter 55.

Jo Baker's story centres on Sarah, a girl as spirited as Elizabeth Bennet, and with similar hopes. But in the kitchen at Longbourn, whom is she to fall in love with? Rubbing goose-grease on her chilblains, she pores over Mr Bennet's discarded Courier, dreaming of a larger future. Enter two new footmen, one at Longbourn itself, and one at Netherfield Park - Ptolemy Bingley, a handsome mulatto from the Bingley sugar plantation in the West Indies (named, as was customary, after the slave owner).

Encompassing the slave trade and the Napoleonic war, the story looks beyond Austen's horizons. It is lightly pinned to her narrative. Rain, she wrote, meant that the "very shoe-roses [for the Netherfield ball] had to be got by proxy"; so Sarah duly trudges through the downpour to Meryton. Passing the barracks, she witnesses with horror the flogging of a soldier which features in Pride and Prejudice only as Lydia's light aside.

The servants are closely linked with the Bennet family and its fortunes. Mrs Hill is as fearful about the entail as Mrs Bennet; for when Mr Collins inherits Longbourn, she stands to lose her job. It is she who administers regular "cordial" to the nervy Mrs Bennet, and who has, as we learn, a surprising relationship with Mr Bennet.

Baker has a sure touch. Sarah's story, and those of the rest of the servants, are delicately and satisfyingly told, and illuminate the harsh world of work that enables the gentility of the drawing-rooms. I shall never read Pride and Prejudice as unthinkingly again.

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