Downton Abbey, the BBC series about the inner workings of a grand English estate in the early 20th century is back on TV for its final season. It’s been eagerly anticipated in our house — my kids watch past seasons and my daughter hammers out the theme song on the piano.
For those who aren’t satisfied by the TV show, Longbourn by British author Jo Baker offers an equally interesting, but more critical view of British servant quarters. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Baker came up with the idea for her latest book while watching Downton Abbey.
As you may have guessed by the title, Longbourn is named after the Bennett family estate featured in the novel Pride and Prejudice. I thought it might be impossible to come up with a fresh take on Jane Austen’s famous early 19th century novel, but I was happily proven wrong.
Pride and Prejudice centres on Mrs. Bennett’s attempts to marry her five daughters to wealthy landowners. At the time, the fate of the girls and of their family depended upon marrying well. Servants are mentioned in passing in Pride and Prejudice. In Longbourn, Baker retells Austen’s plot entirely from the servants’ point-of-view.
Sarah is a housemaid who was selected from a nearby orphanage to work at the Bennett’s estate. She is just coming of age as a peculiar footman is also hired and given a bed above the horse stable. Their lives intersect, and the mystery of the footman’s appearance and his past history is slowly revealed.
In addition to fleshing out a world of servants only briefly mentioned in the original novel, Baker adds depth to many of the characters in Pride and Prejudice. The Bingley family made their great fortune with the sugar and slave trade in the West Indies. Mr. Bennett has a secret from before his marriage that he has kept hidden from his family but not from the servants, and Mr. Wickham, already an unsavoury character in the original novel, takes a sinister interest in the young serving staff.
While I was sometimes surprised by Baker’s imagining, her descriptions don’t take away from or taint the original novel. She does well to weave the two stories together using real dialogue and incidents from Pride and Prejudice, telling them from a fresh point of view. The footman waits in the cold during the ball at Meryton, only glimpsing at the warmth inside, and being harassed by the other drunken and gambling servants also waiting for their masters. At home, young girls wait up for the revellers, only to get up a few hours later to fetch water and wood to run the household.
Baker’s writing isn’t as sharp or as subtle as Jane Austen’s, and she has more of a taste for melodrama. But this difference in voice actually helps separate the two stories. Much as in Downton Abbey, Baker highlights the unending work of the serving girls compared to the idle ladies, and how marrying for love was largely an unrealistic dream, whether living at the top or the bottom of the stairs.
Heather Allen is a book reviewer living in Penticton