Parodies, continuations and alternate universe settings of Jane Austin’s books have become very popular – mysteries, vampire hunters, etc. – with a greater or (more often) lesser degree of success. Now there is a new version using the world and characters Austin’s Pride and Prejudice and it is delightful and beautiful and very much a great success.
Longbourn by Jo Baker follows the story of Pride and Prejudice from the the servants point-of-view. As were good servants in real life, the servants in Austin are mostly silent and unseen. Here they take center stage. They have their own dramas and crisis, joy and heartbreak and a unique, decidedly unglamorous view of the family. The Bennett girls, both thoughtful and frivolous, only rarely acknowledge the servants and the extra work they often unnecessarily create for them (except for sweet Jane who is always undemanding and kind), and offhandedly change the servants lives without consulting what they might wish. Although they are the center around which the servants orbit, the Bennets are regulated to the periphery here and the world of the servant is foremost. The work is physically hard and mind numbing dull, yet for most of the servants their place in the household gives them shelter, both physical and emotional, from a cruel world.
Sarah, orphaned at a young age, is grateful to have a place at Longbourn, yet wonders if she can again find the happiness she remembers before her parents died. Her suspicions of James the new footman gradually change and when she discovers his secret, they become bound by love and a common understanding of those who are alone.
Longbourn is beautifully written – you may find yourself stopping frequently to reread favorite passages – and full of compassion and secrets. James’ story is especially heartbreaking and suspenseful. At heart a love story, Longbourn is also about the restrictions imposed by society and class structure, about what we are willing to sacrifice for those we love, about the power of waiting and standing firm, about finding your own path no matter the obstacles.