Below the Bennets’ Stairs: Jo Baker’s Longbourn (book review)

Longbourn, Jo Baker’s 2013 semi-retelling of Pride and Prejudice, may well be the best-written Austen-adjacent text that I’ve read, in terms of prose style. And I have read… a lot.longbourn.PNG

I use the term “semi-retelling” because the book is about the Longbourn servants, focalized through Sarah the housemaid, and doesn’t really concern the events of the original novel except insofar as the servants have to deal with them. Like the original, it begins with the arrival of the Bingleys at Netherfield, but the action extends a few months beyond where Pride and Prejudice leaves our characters. (Or a few years, if you count a brief epilogue.)

In concept, that makes the book most similar to Joan Austen-Leigh’s 1995 A Visit to Highbury, a novel told in alternating letters between Mrs. Goddard of Emma (the mistress of Harriet Smith’s school) and her sister, an original character. That novel, however, is more of a romantic comedy (and a well-done, enjoyable one, though Mrs. Goddard’s sections mostly just rehearse the plot of Emma without adding much). Longbourn too includes romance, but in terms of genre, I’d call it a literary drama.

Baker is clearly trying to make hay of the strange fact that servants and employers could share a house without really knowing each other as people. Elizabeth, Jane, and company appear on the page, but are not fully-realized characters. Instead, we get a pointed sense that the young ladies feel they know Sarah, while she’s constantly aware of how little they really know about or consider her. (Elizabeth’s carelessness about petticoats and mud is the primary example of this.) It’s a very understandable choice for Baker—she lands her zingers about the class system—but Elizabeth is such a beloved character that the fact that Sarah’s main attitude toward her is a low-level annoyance, reasonable as it may be, didn’t necessarily endear me to Sarah. I felt instructed.

The book is meticulously researched, one can tell; there are no embarrassing anachronisms to take one out of the story, as are common in lighter Austen spin-offs (the murder mysteries and so forth). Still, Baker brings a decidedly contemporary sensibility to Regency England, such as giving the Bingley family sugar plantations so she can comment on slavery, making her protagonist attracted to a mixed-race footman at Netherfield, and (semi-spoiler? I guess?) revealing that Mr. Hill—husband to housekeeper Mrs. Hill, the only Longbourn servant whose name I remembered from the original novel—is gay. Mrs. Hill knew this when she married him, we learn, and she and the other servants and local village folk are totally cool about it.

This is the odd novel that compelled me to keep turning pages while still feeling quiet and slow-paced. Baker really produces fine prose. I never felt strongly about any of her original characters, but I was still interested in what would happen next. There’s little conflict; Sarah toys with a couple of romantic options, but then chooses one, and that is the bulk of the novel. Toward the end, one really dramatic thing goes wrong, neatly paralleled to the crisis the Bennets are undergoing upstairs. There’s also a strange section where we leave Sarah’s point of view and travel into the Napoleonic wars via the memories of another character: a gritty, brutal, shockingly different milieu from the quiet “——-shire” countryside.

I read this book with an eye to its teaching possibilities, but ended up deciding not to include it in my course. However, I’ll add it to my growing list of “further reading” recommendations for students. This decision begs the question: what qualities would a contemporary retelling would have to have for me to feel justified in spending a week or two on it in class, when we could be reading more of Austen’s own writing?

For me, it comes down to how discussable and debatable the text is—what values of the source material it cracks open, or what values of our own moment it taps into. Longbourn reveals the invisible labor behind the lifestyle of balls, dinners, notes delivered, and servants sent to accompany travelers: valuable work, but approachable through other means as well. Thanks to Baker, I now plan to draw the students’ attention to these things.

With a little preparation, I feel like this could be a productive class activity or homework assignment. Find the hidden labor—a sort of Regency “where’s Waldo.” Where’s capitalism?

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