Longbourn by Jo Baker is proof that new work based in an homage can be so much more than the wish-fulfillment and bizarre tangents of fan fiction. A lot of literature provides alternate perspectives of a known works and Baker took Pride and Prejudice, a novel known so well by so many, and used it as a starting point for an interesting and compelling new story. The Bennets and their love lives are the MacGuffin to hang the narrative upon, but what Baker shows the reader goes well beyond the original story. Lizzie and Jane make good matches, Lydia makes an imprudent one, but while their worst potential fate is to be a beholden maiden aunt or living in genteel poverty, what of the lives of their servants and the working poor who surround them and indeed live at Longbourn with them?
Sarah was orphaned at a young age and soon taken in at Longbourn manor where she trained as a servant, slowly taking on heavier and more complex duties. Now twenty, she has worked with the Hills and for the Bennets for most of her life. Her counterpart, Polly, has followed the same road, starting in service at six (!), she is now twelve and has the foibles of a child her age. James Smith has just been brought into the home as a footman. Sarah is fascinated by him immediately, but mostly as a mystery to be solved. He is hardworking and considerate, but aloof as well. He keeps his head down and, especially regarding Sarah, his eyes forward. He had been “on the tramp” before securing this position and wants nothing to do with anything but the basic comforts of life he has long been denied. The inner battle between the desire to belong and be safe versus asserting one’s true self is central to the book. Both James and Sarah, and everyone else of their class, have lives of little choice and precarious security, even when they reach for new experiences.
Writing about the 19th century below stairs gives Baker the chance for a more varied take on the comedy of manners Austen wrote. Familiar Pride and Prejudice characters are given back stories and complications that feel reasonable. When shown from the servants’ perspective some characters become more sympathetic, some less so. Wickham in particular is given greater depth and none of it good. Mr. Darcy appears briefly in the story as a man of such exalted personage that his presence is like a god descending from Olympus and one comparably unconcerned with the mere mortals around him. The chasm between his life of Sarah’s could not be much wider and I loved seeing him through her eyes.
The historical detail of Longbourn is what made it most enjoyable for me, although the realistic recounting of James’ military service was harrowing as well. I read a lot of books about people falling in love set against variably dubious historical backdrops and I can be pretentiously captious about whatever detail the author decides to include. Here the historical elements are crucial because without them you cannot understand who the characters are. Their jobs are a large portion of their identity, the system that holds them in place was designed that way. A warm bed and steady meals are considered a luxury that they should be grateful for.The limitations and injustices of the class system are ferocious and depressing, yet Sarah and James strive for their own happiness as best they can against the mundane drudgery and quiet desperation.