Longbourn opens with a detailed description of a housemaid’s early morning labors, fetching the water from the well for laundry day. The day begins painfully early for Sarah, and her work is drudgery. But she’s also attuned to the beauty of her world, beyond the heaving of water into buckets: “Sheep huddled in drifts on the hillside; birds in the hedgerows were fluffed like thistledown; in the woods, fallen leaves rustled with the passage of a hedgehog; the stream caught starlight and glistened over rocks.”
Quickly, we discern the essential tension of Longbourn, between servants and those served: “Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were a pair of churchyard humps under the counterpane. The young ladies, all five of them sleeping in their beds, were dreaming of whatever it was that young ladies dream.”
Longbourn is Pride and Prejudice as seen from the other side of that familiar household, the story of characters who barely flicker in the original: the butler, Mrs. Hill, the two housemaids, Bingley’s footman. Activities that heighten the marriage prospects of the young ladies—dances and dinners and walks down country lanes—pummel the maids with extra work, while Sarah’s frantic inquiries about a missing servant barely register with her young mistresses. (I couldn’t help despising Elizabeth Bennet for her thoughtlessness, though she is one of my favorite characters.)
How little these long-suffering servants mattered to the Bennets, and, by extension, to Austen herself. Far from wealthy, she still lived a blinkered life of privilege. It was revolutionary enough for Austen to create heroines who held out for love in marriage (so long as the man in question was a gentleman, with sufficient income to keep servants). Concerns about the lower classes would have to be taken up by other authors, in subsequent periods.
In Longbourn, Baker captures an underclass in flux, on the cusp of other possibilities. Servants read and may even borrow books from Mr. Bennet’s library. And they imagine different futures for themselves beyond removing mud stains from young ladies’ petticoats. They seem ready to rush headlong into the Industrial Revolution that (we know) is around the bend.
Yet Baker obviously holds great affection for Pride and Prejudice. In her afterward, she cites it as the only book she continues to re-read. (It’s on my often-read list, too, but so are Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, and Our Mutual Friend.) Admiration hasn’t swamped Baker’s ability to write her own book, in her own voice. How different from 2012’s Pemberley, a continuation of Pride and Prejudice, where P. D. James squelched her own distinct voice to try to sound like Austen, with unfortunate results.
Baker captures Longbourn’s natural and domestic settings with language that is fresh, precise, convincing, and a joy to read. She weaves her new story into the original novel in remarkable ways; we’re invited to entertain new thoughts about a much-loved classic while enjoying this fine new narrative.