“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
From the time I started reading “grown-up” books during my middle school years, I have loved English manor novels, or books similar in writing style and flavor. Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, all of the Agatha Christie mysteries, Little Women, and, of course, Pride and Prejudice.
And then along came Downton Abbey, and I became aware of the lives of those who live “below stairs” in these great countryside manors. Oh, the drama. Oh, the intrigue. Oh, the absolute addictiveness of it all. It’s so much fun to see how the other half lives, but also so much fun to witness the lives of those who cater to that other half.
So, it was with great excitement that I dove into Longbourn, a novel by Jo Baker. Longbourn, of course, is the house of the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice. Longbourn – the novel – looks at the story of the love affair of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, as well as all of the angst and drama that went into getting Elizabeth and all of the Bennet girls married, from the perspective of the people who lived below stairs.
In Pride and Prejudice, the staff is barely mentioned. There are elusive mentions of a maid bringing in tea and some references to the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill. But the staff definitely play absolutely no role in the story of Pride and Prejudice.
Baker, however, presents a fictional staff, albeit small as the Bennets (as you may recall) were not among the wealthiest of their class, and gives them a personality and a storyline. But most fun of all, we are able to look at all of the happenings in the Bennet family through the eyes of the staff.
The story centers around Sarah, one of two young maids who work very hard to care for the Bennet family and all of their things. These maids must get Elizabeth and Jane’s dresses spotlessly clean, they must dress them and prepare their food and serve them their meals.
Says Sarah early in the book: “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.”
In other words, they were human.
Under rather mysterious circumstances, Mr. Bennet hires a new footman named James, who is hard-working and kind and intelligent. He immediately falls in love with Sarah. She eventually loves him in return. The book delves into their relationship and the difficulty they have being in love for a number of wonderfully dramatic reasons.
The book drags down a bit in Volume III as we learn a bit more about James’ life. I wanted to stay in the manor house, thank you very much. Nevertheless, the book was one that I simply couldn’t put down. It was a grand read.
Longbourn is a must-read for lovers of Pride and Prejudice and fans of Downton Abbey. I can’t wait until someone realizes it must be made into a movie!
Buy Longbourn from Amazon here.
Buy Longbourn from Barnes and Noble here.
Buy Longbourn from Tattered Cover here.