This book came late in my reading year but has a guaranteed spot on my “best-of” list for 2013. I found it completely enthralling and engaging. It’s so much more than just another re-vision of Jane Austen, although it is that as well — a re-telling of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the household servants in the Bennet family home. Austen-lovers will enjoy catching glimpses of key scenes in the story from the point of view of the help, but a reader who had never picked up Pride and Prejudice could enjoy Longbourn perfectly well in its own right. It’s a story that does what more historical fiction ought to do (and what I know from experience is devilishly hard to do well) — capture what life in a previous century was like for the people who actually did all the work. The housemaids who clean the Bennet sisters’ laundry, serve their food, scrub their floors and do a thousand other thankless tasks are the main characters here, and Jo Baker’s genius is that she not only makes their daily work routine so vivid you can almost feel the aching backs and sore hands; she also makes these characters as compelling as anyone Austen ever created — or, dare I say, moreso.
Although it’s not necessary to have read Pride and Prejudice to appreciate this wonderful novel, watching how the two stories intertwine helps add to the richness of Longbourn. It’s startling to realize how dependent the upper class and their servants were on each other, yet how completely separate their concerns were. Events that form the main plot of Pride and Prejudice impact on the characters in Longbourn only insofar as they raise the question, “How will this change affect our employment?” Meanwhile, below stairs, things happen — like the sudden disappearance of a key character — which leave a huge gap in the lives of the servants but are not even noticed by the Bennet family.
It’s interesting, also, to see the ways in which the two love stories echo each other. In the housemaid Sarah and the footman James, Baker has created characters every bit as powerful as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Sarah is, like Elizabeth, an intelligent, independent-minded woman constrained by the restrictions society places on a woman of her class. James is as taciturn and enigmatic as Mr. Darcy with far better reason to be. An omniscient point of view, which I don’t normally like in novels, works very well here as it gives us glimpses into the thoughts and backstories of several characters, helping us understand motives that are opaque to the other characters.
This year has been a great one for me in reading historical fiction, with memorable novels such as The Signature of All Things, The Painted Girls, and Life After Life. Longbourn takes its place with the best of these, reminding us that while grand historical sagas about kings and queens, lords and ladies will always grab readers’ attention, the ordinary lives of working people were just as full of drama, passion and interest, and just as worthy of being fashioned into novels.