May 25, 2015

Book Review - Longbourn: Pride and Prejudice – the servants' story by Jo Baker

Pride and Prejudice, one of the English speaking world's favourite novels by the acclaimed Jane Austen, concerns the Bennett family of five daughters, who will be homeless on their father's death because the family property, Longbourn, is entailed and can only be inherited by a male heir, Mr Bennet's cousin, Mr Collins. This story focuses on the servants of Longbourn:  Mr and Mrs Hill, Sarah, Polly and James. Just as the Bennet daughters are dependent on a good outcome to keep a home, so are the servants. Mr Collins proposes to and is rejected by Elizabeth Bennet and immediately secures the hand of their neighbour, Charlotte Lucas.

"…it was though a sack of bricks had been lifted from Mrs Hill's back. The future was no longer such a terrifying place. Charlotte Lucas was a steady young woman, who knew the value of a good servant, and who had far too much sense to replace staff simply for the sake of appearance or fashion. Nothing was certain, of course – for nothing is certain in this life, except that we must leave it – but Charlotte had been in and out of Mrs Hill's kitchen since she was a little girl, asking for recipes, a loan of sugar or a jelly mould, and was known to be particularly partial to Mrs Hill's lemon tarts, and indeed had on several occasions been heard to say that nobody could make a lemon tart like Mrs Hill. Back in the kitchen, Mrs Hill set about whipping up a batch of lemon tarts to send back with Sir William. These little attentions were more than worth the effort."

It is not necessary to know Pride and Prejudice to get a lot out of this story. Elizabeth is fond of walking and getting her petticoats muddy, on such excursions, she has encounters with Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. In Longbourn, the focus is on Sarah and Polly getting the mud out on wash-day, with cold reddened hands and chillblains. The servants' tasks are carefully detailed, revealing the unimaginable drudgery of keeping a large household running with no running water, no sewerage, no mechanical aids and a lot of sheer hard work. Sarah takes centre stage and her story is told well, but Polly, James and the Hills all reveal their backgrounds, hopes and dreams in this sensitively imagined and satisfying read. A welcome complement to the beloved novel.

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