books, Death Comes to Pemberley, Diane Johnson, Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen, Jo Baker, literature, Longbourn, Margaret C. Sullivan, Mary Bennet, Mr. Collins, P.D. James, Pride and Prejudice, Sarah Seltzer, Syrie James
“The very shoe-roses were got by proxy.” This line from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice sparked Jo Baker’s fascinating exploration of the servants’ world at Longbourn, in a novel that highlights the inequalities and injustices of a system in which some young ladies are born to sew, read, talk, and dance, while others are born to scrub mud and blood from their mistresses’ clothes and underclothes, to cook and clean, and to brave miserable weather for the trivial errand of fetching decorative shoe-roses. Longbourn is not about Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their five daughters, although the family and their friends and acquaintances do appear in the background, in the way that servants appear in Austen’s novel.
A spirited maid named Sarah and the mysterious new footman at Longbourn, James, are the heroine and hero of this story, while Elizabeth Bennet appears only briefly and Mr. Darcy is hardly mentioned at all. The other servants are Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper; her husband, the butler; and Polly, another maid. Let me say right away that Baker’s Elizabeth is very different from Austen’s. Gentle Jane, wicked Wickham, and silly Kitty, Lydia, and Mrs. Bennet, for example, are all recognizable here, but in Longbourn, Elizabeth is generally thoughtless and even unkind. It’s she who says, with a “sorrowful glance” at the rain outside, that those shoe-roses will have to be got by proxy, meaning by Sarah. Utterly self-absorbed, she shows no interest in her maid beyond a vague and misguided assumption that Sarah will be keen to visit London and see more of the world. Austen’s Elizabeth is sharp, quick to judge, and slow to understand herself, but she is unkind only to those who have slighted her, such as Mr. Darcy or Miss Bingley – and we aren’t given any reason in Longbourn to believe Sarah has offended her.
There are a couple of ways of reading this new version of Elizabeth, depending on the degree to which you see fidelity to the original novel as essential in an adaptation. In Baker’s defense, she isn’t continuing Austen’s story, she’s creating a new story, and her Sarah and James are certainly capable of holding the reader’s attention and sympathy themselves, whether her Elizabeth does or not. (P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, on the other hand, also features an Elizabeth Bennet who lacks the wit and energy of Austen’s heroine, but while James’s Darcy and Wickham get all the attention in her sequel to Pride and Prejudice, neither one of them sparkles very much either, so there’s little compensation.)
Sarah and James win our sympathy not only because they have difficult, unpleasant jobs – like scouring pans and scrubbing filthy petticoats or emptying sloshing chamberpots – but because of their tenacity and courage as they struggle to make a good life for themselves. They don’t give up, even when it seems fate is against them – and it almost always seems that fate is against them. I won’t give away too many details of what happens to them, but James, for example, holds fast to his belief that truth will win out: “he would not be punished for something he had not done.” And if Baker’s Elizabeth has lost her confidence and her kindness, Sarah has gained both. She speaks up fearlessly to James, sparring with him in the way Austen’s Elizabeth challenges Darcy, and she offers protection to Polly when Wickham gets too close.
It’s clever to foreground the servants’ lives, but Longbourn isn’t the story of just any early nineteenth century servants, and the debt the novel owes to Pride and Prejudice means we’re invited, even obliged, to read one in light of the other. I don’t mean that slavish imitation is required, but it shouldn’t be necessary to make readers dislike the Bennets and others of their class in order to increase our sympathy for their servants. Isn’t it possible to sympathize with both the maid who scrubs the petticoats and the woman who employs her?
Longbourn’s focus on the perceived plight of the minor characters extends not only to the servants, but also to Mr. Collins and Mary Bennet. All of them, according to this interpretation, have been wronged by the Bennets, chiefly Elizabeth. Baker’s determination to rehabilitate the characters Elizabeth criticizes leads to a brief section in which she gives us Mary Bennet’s point of view, which is jarring because it’s the one place we leave the minds of the servants. Mary has allowed herself to dream of marriage to Mr. Collins, “of the new importance that it would bring to her,” imagining that “on becoming Mr. Collins’s bride, she would have also become the means of her family’s salvation, and no longer just the plain, awkward, overlooked middle child.” This passage, along with passages that present Mr. Collins as well-meaning and misunderstood, suggests that Longbourn isn’t just “The Servants’ Story,” as the novel’s subtitle has it, but the story of the characters who in Pride and Prejudice are denied the sympathy of either Elizabeth or the narrator or both of them. I was almost surprised to find that Baker didn’t include a defense of Miss Bingley.
Longbourn is a moving love story that could almost stand on its own, as Baker gives us powerful new characters whose courage in the face of adversity makes for compelling reading. And its premise is intriguing: the novel offers a new way of looking at Austen’s world, reminding us in vivid and disturbing detail of the way elegant Regency lifestyles depended heavily on the labour of servants. Yet ultimately, Longbourn’s distortion of the very characters, especially the heroine, whose story inspired this one, means that it disappoints. The servants’ story would be more successful if the novel didn’t oversimplify tensions between the classes by demanding that readers learn to dislike, or even despise, Elizabeth Bennet.
For further reading:
Sarah Seltzer discusses Longbourn in “How to make a Jane Austen reboot that’s actually good,” Salon, November 11, 2013: “Often, though, Baker’s effort at ‘rewriting’ the characters to show their privilege feels didactic – we get it, they’re enabling the gears of oppression.”
Margaret C. Sullivan’s review of Longbourn at Austenblog, November 3, 2013: “We struggled through this book, constantly pulled out of it by this determination to dunk Austen’s work in a literary mud puddle. It seems to us a subversion of Pride and Prejudice, not a celebration of it.”
Syrie James’s review of Longbourn at Austenprose, October 16, 2013: “Jo Baker’s engrossing novel … takes Jane Austen’s famous work, turns it upside down, and shakes out a fully realized and utterly convincing tale of life and romance among the servants.”
“Pride, Prejudice, and Drudgery,” Diane Johnson’s review of Longbourn in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, October 11, 2013: “a work that’s both original and charming, even gripping, in its own right.”