and Prejudice, the servants' story
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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
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