Longbourn by Jo Baker

In the Regency Era, just like today, there were the haves and the have nots. Those who had, even modestly, owned at least one servant to do the menial tasks of cooking, cleaning, washing, and any other chore which required rugged labor. The have nots really had little choice as poor families tended to be large and had to kick out the older children to fend for themselves. Illness and death due to childbirth left many young ones homeless living on the streets or trying to survive in the workhouses. Female servants needed to guard their reputations since dismissal could push them into a life of prostitution.

A gentleman with an annual allowance, such as Mr Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, could afford more than one servant. Jo Baker, using clues from Jane Austin’s novel, began to construct a backstory, rewriting the tale from the viewpoint of the employees who ran the household while Mrs Bennett tried to marry off her daughters. While the main characters make various appearances, it’s the life of the cook, Mrs Hill, her elderly butler husband, and the two young servant girls, Sarah and Polly, who become the focal point of the novel Longbourn. Add in a young wanderer, James Smith, who is hired to do
odd jobs including driving the family about and serving the meals, and you have the cast of characters.

The story opens with Sarah trying to get the girls’ clothes clean on washday (Elizabeth’s petticoats always seemed to be especially muddy) when she sees James wander by and starts to wonder. She continues wondering after James becomes the family’s footman since he is especially quiet and doesn’t seem to pay any attention to her, although he teases the younger Polly. Yet she can’t help but be grateful when he picks up some of the more strenuous chores such as carting in the water and cleaning up the muck laden boots.

Life gets interesting when Bingley comes to stay at nearby Netherfield. The handsome mulatto groomsman, Ptlomey, who hand delivers the various missives back and forth between his master and Jane, provides a diversion for Sarah with his colorful descriptions of the long imagined London. Sarah must act as lady’s maid when the five girls attend the ensuing social events, aggravating the chilblains on her hands as she irons and arranges their hair and clothing.

While the story follows along with the basic plot of the original novel, Baker creates this parallel story of the servants lives providing a different view of the inhabitants of Longbourn where Mrs Bennett is treated as a more sympathetic character while Mr Bennett is portrayed as a louse and a fool. The reader gets a closer look at what life was really like at the beginning of the 19th century without automobiles, electricity, washing machines, central heating, and plumbing (someone had to empty those chamber pots and wash those filthy nappies when babies were around). The Bennett sisters, while kindly towards the housemaids (even giving Sarah and Polly a choice of one of their old dresses after their father agreed to finance some new frocks), were also self centered, thinking only of their own comforts while others did the actual work. Reflecting the mores of the era, Baker does an excellent job of opening our eyes to how the other half lived.

While I would not say that the author has the same word smithing talent as Jane Austin, Baker does a credible job creating an enjoyable read. This is one of many published “adaptations” of the Bennett saga and is definitely worth a look. Between three and a half and four stars.

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