So when I heard about Longbourn – the servants’ version of Pride and Prejudice – I immediately added it to my to-read list, although with some trepidation. How could it ever live up to Jane Austen?
Honestly, it didn’t. But it didn’t have to. Longbourn tells an entirely separate story from Pride and Prejudice. The Bennets are only incidental, providing inconveniences and work. Telling their story is not the purpose of this book. The lives of the servants take center stage.
Mrs. Hill becomes a living, breathing person. She is much more than just someone who hands Mrs. Bennet the smelling salts. She has hopes, dreams, and a history (a very unexpected one!). Sarah, the housemaid, wants so much more out of life than what she currently has. But how will she find it? By following Bingley’s exotic and tempting footman to London? Or by getting to know James, the mysterious footman at Longbourn whom no one seems to know anything about?
Jane Austen has been criticized for leaving the “real world” out of her novels. Life is not all tea and parties. Longbourn attempts to put the history of the time back in. The slave trade is mentioned, and the war with Napoleon is dealt with in much more detail than I expected. You would think that a book about servants would be even more inward-focused than one about the higher class, who at least are free to travel around the country. Not so.
Jo Baker treats the Bennet family with respect, but not kid gloves. You don’t need to fear that your perception of them will be dashed, but your eyes will be opened to the differences in class that were simply taken for granted in that time. Above all, you will learn that a servant is no different from anyone else in their hopes and fears. And you will get to know the servants of Longbourn quite well, and love them as part of the Bennet family.