It is a truth universally acknowledged that a (according to the census) single woman, in her late twenties, of absolutely no fortune whatsoever, must have watched the BBC series as a preteen and fallen hopelessly in love with Pride and Prejudice.
I watched it on a Sunday night with my mum, and Monday mornings were spent comparing Feels About Mr Darcy with the other 11 year olds, owing to me going to a VERY good primary school where the rest of the girls also watch Period Dramas with their mum’s on a Sunday night.
I read the book, then read all of Austen’s other books, which I loved, and still loved up to last week (apart from Mansfield Park which is crap). I had Austen themed tea towels. I’ve written multiple massive essays about how much I love Austen. I’ve got a rather expensive bracelet made up of a Persuasion quote and when I was 18 I wrote the one essay for my A Levels that actually got an A on the use of satire in Northanger Abbey.
And now my heart feels like it had been ripped out and turned the right way round. I feel born again, renewed. I feel like I’ve realised I’ve got a skull on my cap badge and I’m the bad guy. And this is all because of this wonderful, wonderful book.
Longbourn is Pride and Prejudice from the servants perspective, but it is so much more than that. It is a social history of Britain at a time where the lower classes were being thoroughly shat upon by their so-called betters. I’m also reading Becoming Queen by Kate Williams at the moment, the biography of Princess Charlotte, George IV’s daughter who died in childbirth, and so am becoming more and more aware of the politics of the time but it is SO GOOD to be able to read a book about a working woman from the period, as you do tend to hear about posh people rather than anything else.
Sarah, one of the Bennet’s housemaids, is fed up with her life but has no tangible way out of it. She dreams of travel, of London, of handsome men who will say handsome things to her-but of course this is the life reserved for a masters the Bennet girls who are ‘pretty and good, and therefore deserve good and pretty things’. Meanwhile Sarah must wash the period blood off their handkerchiefs and mud off Elizabeth’s petticoats and try not to burst the blisters on her palms.
Into Sarah’s life, and the lives of the other servants at Longbourn including the long-suffering but kindly Mrs Hill who is the only servant mentioned by name in the original book, comes a new face. James Smith, arriving in the dead of night and presenting himself mysteriously to Mr Bennet, is employed as footman-which brings great esteem to the Bennet household and men are more expensive to employ so make the family appear richer to their neighbours.
James’ arrival is not the only change in the neighborhood-Netherfield Park is let at last (much to the chagrin of its housekeeper who then has the mammoth task of airing and redecorating all of the rooms). Along with Mr Bingley comes his army of servants, including his own, black, footman, who joined the party from his Caribbean estates and likes England because it means he is no longer a slave.
And this is where I paused. Because of course Bingley’s wealth would come from slavery, as would the money of pretty much every high-ranking person with no title in the novel. It sickened me, to think that I hadn’t thought of this before. I was incredibly ashamed of not linking the periods in my head before and it made me think about Austen so very differently. Because she writes her heroes that you’re supposed to fall in love with, and you do, but they are actually scum. Slaving, evil scum. And I fell for this! I’ve fancied Mr Darcy since I was eleven and he associates himself with those who more than likely make money from the notion that you can own a person. Why have I NEVER cottoned on to this? Why aren’t we TALKING about this? Why is our literary heritage so utterly dissociated with our, quite frankly shameful, social one? I wrote a letter to my MP asking for Austen to be put on a BANK NOTE FFS and she was writing positively about SLAVERS. I am disgusted with myself.
This aside, the book is about hard work, and no rest, and living your life at the whims of others. The Bennet girls become petty, thoughtless, bitches. Yes, their situation may be massively limited compared to that of the men, but they are so utterly privileged compared to the servants and the other working class people that would have surrounded them.
The novel is also excellent in how it works the other characters. Mr Wickham, who in P&P is a cad and a bounder who acts appallingly on occasion because a terrifying predator -we are suddenly very much aware that, in P&P, those are children he is seducing. Mr Collins is seen through the eyes of those who are desperate to remain in employment when Mr Bennet dies, and the marriage to Charlotte Lucas becomes something else entirely.
The book is also a love story, and a good one at that. It is real and vivid and well-played. It matches the action of Pride and Prejudice exactly, but is more than that. As a book in its own right it is wonderful, I’d have loved Sarah and James and Mrs Hill even if they weren’t servants to the Bennet household. I’ve never read anything by Jo Baker before but boy is that changing now!
Loved it, hated myself for a bit whilst reading it, but loved it. You NEED to read this book. I’m now looking forward to the Pride and Prejudice celebration at Morley Lit Fest tomorrow more than anything else in the world, though I might burst into tear when I see her and scream YOU MADE ME HATE ELIZABETH BENNET AND WHAT DO I DO NOW??? at her.
Book of the year.