If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
In this below stairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.
Sequels or Spin-offs to/of popular literature usually don’t really appeal to me. They often feel like an expression of poverty on behalf of the author, who seems to be incapable of coming up with a story of their own or in need of the popularity of someone else’s work to sell their book. With this in mind, I started reading Longbourn. I was pleasantly surprised. Jo Baker tells a story that can stand on its own, but proves to be a nice addition to Pride and Prejudice. It is not so much a fan-written, adoring spin-off of Jane Austen’s novel, but a harsh wake-up call to anyone who likes to lose (him/)herself in the wonderful world of regency period dramas.
Longbourn gives a clear insight into the life of a servant in the 19th century. It portrays the harsh reality of the time, from the enormous task that is laundry to the life of a soldier in the Napoleonic War. At the same time, it is not a harsh book. Beside the romance in the novel, the well-rounded characters also display several other heart warming relationships without glossing over the unpleasantness of life below stairs.
Though she adds some snarky criticisms and juicy gossip along the way, Baker’s descriptions of the Bennet family are generally in line with their characters in Pride and Prejudice. Downstairs, the main character, Sarah, taken from a single mention in the original text, is generally well-rounded, though sometimes uncharacteristically naive. Mrs Hill is one of the most interesting people in the household, she is hardened by the decisions she was forced to make, but they have made her a lot wiser than most of the family upstairs. James is sweet and Polly adorable. Ultimately, the story in itself is not very remarkable, but proves to be an interesting read for the greater part of the novel.