All the time I was reading Jo Baker’s “Longbourn” I had the sensation of not being able to decide if I liked it. This is unusual; feckless and tentative as I am in most realms of human activity, I am generally confident in my literary judgments.
The story, in case anyone missed the large splash it made upon publication in 2014, is “Pride and Prejudice” from the viewpoint of the Bennets’ servants. A brilliant, can’t-miss idea. I like to imagine Ms. Baker, tormented by insomnia and casting around for her next idea for a novel, sitting up in bed.
HOLY SHIT! I’LL CALL IT ‘LONGBOURN!’
I admire that. I admire too, the calm mastery with which she describes landscapes, kisses, and food. I like how the characters of “Pride and Prejudice” are themselves, yet subtly (and sometimes less subtly) altered from this below-stairs perspective. I salute her research: the hard work of early 19th-century housekeeping is described with impressively grim fidelity.
We meet our housemaid heroine, Sarah, heading out in a muddy lane in the predawn dark to fetch water for a dreaded day of laundry-doing, slipping on some pig shit on the way back in. There’s a lot of laundry in this book, and a lot of mud. And I loved how Ms. Baker can lift a single phrase out of “Pride & Prejudice” — the shoe-roses got by proxy in the rainy days before the Netherfield ball, for example, or the private who’d been flogged, mentioned in passing as Lydia and Kitty relay the latest gossip from the officers — and spin them out into entire scenes and chapters. Getting the shoe-roses by proxy turns out to mean a long, drenching walk to Meryton for Sarah, for example. And she is unfortunate enough to witness the man being flogged, a piece of violence that will echo through the book.
Despite a moderately happy ending, there is not a lot of redemption in “Longbourn.” The servants are not content with their lot, and Ms. Baker makes it clear why they have every reason not to be: Their lives are hard and their masters not particularly kind; even their kindness often has a cluelessness that can verge on cruelty. Elizabeth Bennet could cross class lines sufficiently to marry the wealthy Mr. Darcy, but the gulf between servant and master is far greater; no honest human connection can be made across it, not even when sex comes into the picture.
And here it’s impossible to avoid thinking of another work that this book also seems in dialogue with, “Downton Abbey.” Besides wonderful settings, amazing costumes and witty repartee, the popularity of this TV series has always seemed to me to rely on one central and absurd premise: that servant and master are not so dissimilar; that they experience the same kind of problems (if on a different scale); that their aims are aligned; that they share mutual respect sufficient to bridge a deeply entrenched class system. Clearly, people want to believe this, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and the series makes an aesthetically gratifying and often entertaining case for it.
“Longbourn,” by contrast, offers no such comfort.
This might be part of the problem some readers seem to have had with it, judging from many of the critical reviews on Amazon. If you are seeking the cozy world that Jane Austen provides — or more accurately, the illusion of such a world — you will not find it, and probably you will not like “Longbourn.”
Nor will you find the sparkling wit and sly humor of the original work: it’s far darker and more serious, though not entirely without laughs. One might argue that there isn’t much about a servant’s life in the early 19th century to inspire mirth. This is true. But the setup of “Pride and Prejudice” doesn’t either: five young women must find husbands or face a drastic drop in status and income when their father dies and they are turned out of the only home they have ever known. There is a severe shortage of eligible men, thanks to a decades-long war that, incidentally, could mean a French invasion at any moment. The young women have no real education, no prospects of earning a comfortable living on their own, no choice about their lives except the opportunity to say yes or no to a man, assuming they are ever lucky enough to receive an offer of marriage. (And the offer might come from your smarmy, awkwardly self-important cousin Mr. Collins.)
When you think about what’s really going on, “Pride and Prejudice” has no right to be as funny as is it is; its humor can be seen as subversive or escapist, and this ambiguity is also part of its enduring appeal.