Author: Jo Baker
“Pride and Prejudice” fans, this next one’s for you. “Longbourn” combines Austen’s classic novel with the downstairs servant drama found in “Downton Abbey.”
Baker starts the novel by assuming that the reader has already fallen in literary love with “Pride and Prejudice” and understands the ins and outs of the Bennet household. It goes without saying that the five Bennet girls, two loving but sometimes quirky parents and all of the social hierarchies that existed in the early 1800’s set the scene in Longbourn.
Instead of reintroducing the familiar characters, Baker writes about the servants who live alongside the Bennet’s and are at their every beck and call. While Austen focuses on the upstairs life filled with parties and matchmaking, Longbourn brings the downstairs to the forefront of the story.
Mr. and Mrs. Hill are the head servants at the Bennet household with Mrs. Hill at the helm. Although she runs a tight ship in the kitchen, Mrs. Hill cares deeply for her two servants Sarah and Polly. She also is a forward thinker, which is mentioned time and time again as social hierarchies and wealth disparities begin to affect not only the upstairs but those below as well.
The newcomer to the story who has a colorful yet secretive past is James. He joins the house and shares little to no information about his prior work experience, which causes a stir with some of the servants. However, once he makes nice with the others, it turns out that James is the most interesting one of all those downstairs.
Not only does Baker introduce some new and relatable characters to the Austen classic, she does her best to weave them throughout the original wording in “Pride and Prejudice.” Each chapter starts with a quote written by Austen and from there, Baker switches to the servants’ perspective.
The chores that are performed every day in the Bennet household range from serving meals to making soap and starting fires. Every ball with the Bingley’s at Netherfield meant that the ladies’ maids were washing and pressing linens the week before and curling hair the day of.
An even greater state of anxiety and bustle is felt when Mr. Collins came to stay with the Bennets in hopes of securing a wife. Extra rooms have to be made and presentable meals to be served. Furthermore, the future of the entire downstairs rested in the hands of Mr. Collins and his visit as he was the male heir to the Bennet estate. This caused everyone in the house to be on their best behavior no matter where they resided.
Baker’s novel is a wonderful continuation of Jane Austen’s writing. The feelings of patriarchy, family duty, and sense of self are brought to the reader’s mind through the new character lines and plot twists. Also, to the excitement of the reader, the lives of the upstairs Bennet girls progress and stay true to Austen’s original lines. For a Jane Austen disciple, Longbourn is certainly not one to overlook.