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British novelist Jo Baker reimagines 'Pride and Prejudice' from a servants-eye view in the delightful 'Longbourn.'


by Jo Baker,
Knopf Doubleday,
352 pp.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged by servants that a single man in possession of a good fortune makes for an enormous amount of extra work in a household filled with unmarried girls.

In fact, Mrs. Hill, the endlessly patient cook-housekeeper, nearly collapses on her mistress’s couch when Mrs. Bennet shares the good news in Jo Baker’s excellent fourth novel, Longbourn.

“A young, unmarried gentleman, newly arrived to the neighbourhood. It meant a flurry of excited giggly activity above stairs; it meant outings, entertainments, and a barrow-load of extra work for everyone below,” Hill thinks.

Next to Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s hard to think of any writer more imitated than Jane Austen. (In fact, I’ll let the Janeites and Sherlockians argue over which author stands atop the highest stack of copies.) While bitter experience has taught me to shy away from the endless romantic reduxes – including the detectives and especially the zombies – “Longbourn” offers something more substantial than a pale homage or a clever pastiche on “Pride & Prejudice.” In Sarah the housemaid, Baker has created a heroine, living in the same house as Elizabeth Bennet, who manages to shine despite Elizabeth’s long literary shadow.

While Baker includes Mr. Bingley’s arrival, the visit to Hunsford, and the Netherfield Ball, she does more than just revisit favorite scenes. She creates a vital downstairs version of one of the most beloved households in literature. Mr. and Mrs. Hill, the two maids, Sarah and Polly, and the coachman James rate just a mention in Austen’s classic, since, as good servants, they excel at disappearing. (It also wouldn’t have been genteel for a parson’s daughter to discuss such matters as dirty nappies, monthly rags, or chamberpots, even though somebody had to clean them.)


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