A giant fibreglass Mr Darcy arises from the Serpentine, in a TV channel promotion. Slapstick movie Austenland staggers on to screens and Bridget Jones is resurrected. The Pride and Prejudice juggernaut rolls on, exploiting and warping our fascination with its characters in ways which Jane Austen could never have conceived or, one supects, countenanced.
And so it is in hope, but slight trepidation, that an ardent admirer of Austen might approach Longbourn. Its cover copy line‘Pride and Prejudice - the servants’ story’ raises not just our hopes but also the zombiesque spectre of fan fiction in which beloved characters are reanimated, but somehow not quite as they were.
Fear not, dear reader. The unsparing Austenian observation and inventive wit of author Jo Baker have conspired to create a world of convincing character and detail in which the most die hard Austen devotee can die happy.
In Longbourn, the freshly imagined servants of the Bennet family, command centre stage in a compelling drama. Readers may be lured by the repressed aura ofMr Darcy, but they will stay for the struggles and hopes of gutsy strong-minded housemaid Sarah, redoubtable Mrs Hill, exotic Ptolemy and mysterious, war damaged James Smith.
The story marches alongside Pride And Prejudice like an adjoining property. Familiar landmarks are glimpsed but from a fresh perspective, and it is in these differences that the greatest fascination lies.
Until now, we, and the young ladies Bennet, have been insulated from the gritty daily realities of running a small country house. Exhaustion, laundry, chilblains, excrement and job insecurity feature daily. One’s best and finest creations are destined always for others.
Longbourn obliges us to confront some fond notions of elegance and refinement through the lens of the loaded mistress/servant relationship. Although the young ladies might present themselves as ‘smooth and sealed as alabaster statues’, their linen reveals them to be ‘frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures to their laundress.
Lizzie’s long admired disregard for bad weather is naturally viewed rather more critically by her maid:‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields’.
Despite the physical hardships of the servant’s life it becomes clear that material comfort is not a panacea “Perhaps it was actually quite a fearful state to live in – the knowledge that one had achieved a complete success”. Elizabeth, for all her brilliant match is obliged to be ‘what she is required to be’. And even Derbyshire’s largest fortune cannot protect her against that great equalizer, childbirth.
The passionate love affair between James and Sarah is all the more touching for its awkward organic beginnings and its contrast to that other relationship. Sarah’s freedom to choose, both in work and in marriage is hard won and deeply satisfying.
The greatest fun is to be had in the subtle but masterly rehabilitation of familiar characters. Mr Bennet’s scandalous new back-story generates new compassion for scatty, fractious Mrs Bennet. Even perennially pompous Mr Collins emerges surprisingly sympathetically. Meanwhile, it ought to come as no real surprise to anyone that a young housemaid ought not to be left alone with Mr Wickham.
Longbourn will delight both new fans and Austen purists alike. A vivid and engaging story, its characters live on in the imagination.
Readers, we have a new classic.
This review was published in Metro Magazine in December 2013