Longbourn is an “alternative” version of Pride and Prejudice that is told from the point of view of the “below stairs” family. You might think that calling them the below stairs family is pushing it a bit, but you will find out, if you read that book, that my phrasing is pretty accurate.
Alternate versions of any book are not usually my thing. I’m hesitant for several reasons. Will the writing be good, or will it get on my nerves? What would the original author, who created the characters, think about this? Why didn’t the original writer tell this story, if he/she wanted it to be told?
And there are just so many books to read. I mean, I like Jane Austen. I’ve read all of her books at least once, and definitely I’ve read Pride & Prejudice, Emma, and I think Persuasion more than once, but I’m not such a big fan that I’ve wanted to re-read different versions of any of the stories. The only thing I guess I can say is that I’ve read Pride & Prejudice enough to be familiar with the plot, which is a good idea for Longbourne. I’d almost say essential.
I think the idea that Baker went with the “below stairs” staff got my attention more than anything else. Why, I’m not quite sure.
But I have to say, all in all, I’m pleasantly surprised. There were several routes that Baker could take with this novel, and she pulled together two or three of them surprisingly well. I thought her version is fairly realistic. There are tropes I’ve seen in other novels set in the era, most notably Thomas Hardy. There are a lot of descriptions of the countryside and slightly idyllic descriptions of farm work. I was also familiar with some of the customs concerning contractual arrangements at the time from reading Hardy. The nice thing is that I’m not depressed at the end as I frequently am with one of his novels…especially after rereading Tess.
I think I just reread Tess in the unreasonable hope that it’s going to come out ok for her this time. The character of Tess is such a sweetheart! I know that’s the point of the novel, but it’s so sad!
Longbourne novel does start off a bit dark by explaining exposing the dark(ish) underside of life in a large Georgian household, so at first you might think she’s going to go Hardyish.
Here’s a quote that is particularly memorable, and sums up a reality for anyone who doesn’t clean up after themselves: “The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber floor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures that they really were” (4).
You can see that Baker does a nice job of mimicking Austen’s tone as well.
And luckily, once Baker makes her point, the action veers of to other things, most notably the personal lives of the staff who keep the house going. With the exception of Mary and Mr. Bennett, who are the most minor characters in Pride & Prejudice, the Bennett family appear in Longbourne only slightly more than the staff do in Pride & Prejudice.
The real point of this story, however, is to ask whether you need to be one of the “ladies of the manor” to have a nice life in this setting. While Sarah (the protagonist) does have to work very hard, she has more agency in defining the terms of her life than do her counterparts “upstairs”.
As she says, “I can always work.”
The first half to two thirds of the novel follows the plot of Pride & Prejudice somewhat closely; in fact, almost to the point that I was getting a little bit bored about half way through…but then the story takes a surprising turn and goes off in a variety of directions, skipping over the sections of the original novel during which Elizabeth is mostly away from home. During this section of the novel, Baker takes us a bit further away from home and shows us some of the more serious “troubles” that were going on in England while Elizabeth and her sisters were worrying about their marriages.
I also really enjoyed the trip we get to go on to Pemberley at the end of the novel and getting to watch the beginning of Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy unfold.
So between the surprisingly modern lives of the staff and the plot twists, I must say that I was entertained.
And in addition to fleshing out these characters, some of which are not even named in Austen’s original, Baker also gives the readers more sympathetic portraits of some of Austen’s less favorite characters, especially Mr. Bennett and Mary.
I’m especially glad Mary gets some love. I’ve always thought Austen, or at least the Bennett family, were too harsh with her in the original. Whether she became a bit of a nerd and a bore because of genuine interest or because she was simply trying to carve out a niche for herself in which she could shine, as a book lover, I thought the others were mean. Baker is also more sympathetic to Mr. Collins, which I think he also deserves. Mr. Darcy is not the only character to who Elizabeth is prejudiced.
This version of the story has me thinking about going back and rereading P&P to take a look at Austen’s tone: is she really as unsympathetic as Elizabeth’s responses might make her appear, or is Austen skewering Elizabeth along with everyone else?
But also, I am left thinking. The lives of the below-stairs staff, principally Sarah, Elizabeth’s maid, are not nearly as barren as one might imagine, or perhaps assume.
And I’ve also given some thought to who really did have it better. Definitely women like Elizabeth had the nicer life from day to day, but they also had limited options. Even the options for Elizabeth’s father, as this story shows, were quite limited. The “below stairs” staff, in a sense, had a bit more personal freedom, even women, although choosing a life that wasn’t “safe” was just as fraught for both.
What would I rather be? The woman forced to present myself in a certain way to attract a man who could take care of me in a certain way? The payoff is a pleasant, luxurious lifestyle…on the surface…but at what cost? Even if the marriage is happy, and much worse if it isn’t. On the other hand, is a lifetime of strenuous physical labor worth Sarah’s small freedoms? And the chance to go after happiness?
The Lois Level’s Favorite Jane Austen novels, most to least favorite:
Emma is so bossy. I love it. Also, she really gets to know the man she marries, who is ok with her bossiness. And she really cares about those around her.
When you go after what you really want, you take a risk that you won’t get it. Sometimes you have to live with that for a long time.
When things work out for the young and untried, they don’t always appreciate the significance of what they have.
3. Pride & Prejudice
Yes, of course I like Pride & Prejudice. I suppose Elizabeth’s being so snarky to Mr. Collins and her overall attitude is probably a sign of her poor “home training”, but like most people, I like her just the same.
I maintain that if they had all been a bit nicer to Mary, she wouldn’t have come out so insufferable. You reap what you sow.
More retellings of Pride & Prejudice:
Needless to say, there are a lot. These are two that appeal to me:
Jane Austen at Home
This biography examines what happened in Jane Austen’s life and how it affected her novels.
Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalauddin
Just yesterday, one of my Jordanian friends and I were texting about her upcoming 30th birthday, or as my friend put it, “The day when my aunts call me up and yell at me for not having a rich husband yet.”
She has also told me about random guys coming up to her or her friends to get her dad’s phone number. One was a guy who saw her when she went to her (female) friend’s office to pick up money for an upcoming trip. Because the right thing for men do is to get permission from the father before asking a woman out. In 2019, I kid you not. Culturally speaking, that’s the respectful thing to do. Even I yelled at her for about complaining about that! I told her both both know they are trying to do the right thing.
The Arab world in 2020 is not that different from England in 1820 in some ways, even in the enlightened parts. This stuff is real.
Also, Arab celebrations are huge and completely over the top.
Who am I kidding, a lot of stuff about the whole culture is completely over the top (usually in a good way). Also, “family” means all of your aunts, uncles, great aunts & uncles, and up to at least your third cousins.
An Arab Pride & Prejudice has got to be pretty good. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a version set in the United States is also pretty good, mainly because Sittenfeld is a good writer, but she definitely had to force the plot a lot more.
Some of the sources Jo Baker used to write Longbourn:
With books like Longbourne, sometimes the References section is almost as much fun as the book itself.
Here are some goodies I want to try:
I noticed a few of the dishes the Bennetts are served are very specifically described. Here’s why: The Jane Austen Cookbook. Of course there is a Jane Austen cookbook!
I also enjoy reading about how people lived historically. I don’t know why so much history is about wars. Very few people ever went to war, but almost everyone had a home. People who lived had to live somewhere and somehow. Behind Closed Doors is a general social history about how people lived in Austen’s time.
About the Cover Photo
This cover illustration depicts the scene in which Lydia goes to the kitchen to show the staff her ring upon returning to home after her questionable marriage. It shows Mrs. Hill and “the two housemaids”, called Sarah and Polly in Longbourn.
Here is Baker’s narration of the same scene: “After dinner, Lydia galloped down to the kitchen to show off her wedding ring to Mrs. Hill and the housemaids, and boast of being married. Polly looked on, wide-eyed, lips parted: Mrs. Hill peered at the plump little hand and the flower of tiny diamonds, and murmured along with Lydia’s talk, and then, when she could bear it no more, gave her a stick of barley-sugar to shut her up, all the while thinking if the girl did not run back off upstairs she stood a good chance of getting a proper slap” (287).