There have been numerous novels inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but Jo Baker’s depiction of what happens below stairs with the servants is the most intriguing yet. Lauren Elkin on a smart fan fiction.
Since its publication in 1813, and most especially in the past few decades, Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice has inspired numerous adaptations, faithful and eccentric: a number of film and television treatments, a couple of musicals, and by my count 171 novels ranging from 2009’s breakout hit Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to lesser-known titles like Pride and Platypus, Fitzwilliam Darcy: Rock Star, and Pride and Prejudice: the Jewess and the Gentile. Joining their ranks is Jo Baker’s new novel Longbourn, the story of Pride and Prejudice as told from the perspective of the Bennet family’s servants. But Longbourn, I’m willing to bet, is an Austen adaptation unlike any other. Never has so much attention been lavished on the Bennet women’s menses.
But salaciousness isn’t what makes Baker’s novel a worthwhile addition to the list of adaptations. The literary critic Raymond Williams once praised George Eliot for attempting to represent a social world in all its complexity, rather than just one segment of it, as Austen had: “What [Austen] sees across the land is a network of propertied houses and families, and through the holes of this tightly drawn mesh most actual people are simply not seen. To be face-to-face in this world is already to belong to a class.” Jo Baker rises to Williams’s challenge, making visible some of those “actual people” Austen left out. Baker’s novel is a meticulously-researched portrait of Austen’s unsung heroes, the women who do the laundry, bake the pies, carry the chamber pots, fetch the shoe roses from town when Lydia demands them—the women, in short, who make it possible for Jane, Elizabeth, and the rest to flirt, bicker, love, and make their marriages.
From the outset, Baker lays out for us just how hard it was to be a servant in early 19th century England, laying bare the base upon which rests the Austenian superstructure with the assiduity of a hardened Marxist critic: “The air was sharp at four-thirty in the morning when she started work. The iron-pump was cold, and even with her mitts on, her chillblains flared as she heaved the water up from the underground dark and into her waiting pail. A long day to be got through, and this just the start of it.” And unlike Austen (who wrote with a sense of appropriateness, leaving the soldiering mostly off-stage), Baker gives the reader a sense of the global politics within which Longbourn is ensconced, though its inhabitants remain in ignorance: the barracks and military operations of the red-coated soldiers whom Lydia and Kitty lose their heads over are revealed to be plagued with hardship, abuse, and exploitation; when sugar appears on the table, James Smith gives Sarah a lesson in the Triangular Trade, the boats bringing “‘Shackles and chains, pots, knives’” from England to Africa where “‘you can trade all that, and guns, for people; you load them up in your hold, and you ship them off to the West Indies, and you trade them for sugar, and then you ship the sugar back home to England (…) I dare say that the Bingleys will be out of Liverpool, or Lancaster, since it’s said that they hail from the North.’”
At the center of the novel is a feisty, Heraclitus-quoting young housemaid called Sarah, whose everyday drudgery becomes suddenly less oppressive with the arrival on the scene of two young men: the Bingleys’ footman Ptolomy, a former slave once owned by our man of Netherfield’s father, who now bears his name, and the Bennet’s house-man James Smith, whose own parentage is one of the novel’s big reveals. While the Bennet girls dance at the Netherfield ball, Sarah is outside sharing a smoke and a snog with Tol Bingley This love triangle threatens to develop into the stuff of made-for-TV romantic comedy, but Baker resists—mostly—this temptation. A legendary essay by the late great critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick is entitled “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” Baker has taken Sedgwick literally, as Sarah spends evenings in bed fantasizing about the new men in her life. Luckily the love plot never quite takes center stage; instead, Baker keeps her eye trained on the gap between the Bennets’ privilege and the helplessness and unending duty that characterized the lives of their servants.
Sarah has a contemporary conscience with which readers will instantly sympathize: “No one should have to deal with another person’s dirty linen. The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues beneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber floor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures that they really were.” It falls to Sarah and her sidekick Polly to clean these soiled undergarments in one of the queasiest passages in the book, their napkins smelling as they stewed of “the butcher’s shop.”
But Baker is so bent on persuading us that the inhabitants of Longbourn are just like us, but in muslin and breeches, that she goes slightly overboard; when a minor character turns out to have been embroiled in a homosexual affair with a neighboring farmhand, the novel’s charm veers close to tokenism and smugness. Baker lets barely a scene pass without establishing just how very hard it all was, and—in spite of their comparatively low station vis à vis the Bingleys and the Darcys—how well-off the Bennet girls really are. (This is in marked contrast to the 2008 film adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” which seemed to confuse Austen’s novel with one of Charlotte Bronte’s, mistaking Hertfordshire for Yorkshire, and bringing the Bennet girls into closer contact with a sow than Baker’s Bennet girls ever get). The sisters’ personality traits, so charming in Austen’s version, have consequences in Baker’s; Elizabeth’s famously muddy petticoats are a misery for her lady’s maid to clean. This is brought into greater relief as Sarah accompanies Elizabeth on her first visit to Pemberley, and those who recall Miss Bennet’s reaction to the majesty of the estate—“And of this place, thought she, I might have been mistress!”—will hear it echoed in opposition to Sarah’s:
[H]ow did it all start, property and wealth and beauty like that? Who staked out a fence, strung out lines and said, This my land and no one else’s; these fields are mine, these woods are mine; this water, reflecting the white moon, is mine; and all the fish that swim in the water are mine, and all the birds that fly and roost in the woods are mine; and the very air is mine while it moves over my land; and all of this will be mine, and after I am gone, it will be my son’s (…)
Such counterpoints to the original outweigh the excesses of sympathy. Longbourn is told with glee and great wit, and will delight die-hard Austen fans with its irreverent depictions of Colonel Foster pissing in the shrubbery, and, when the Gardiners come to visit, sympathize with Sarah as she contemplates the youngest Gardiners, and all that comes with them: “the shitty nappies, the wetted beds, the work.” Wickham is, in the B-plot as in the A-plot, the root of all evil who almost ruins everything. And Mr Bennet appears as we've never seen him (and didn't really want to). If it occasionally slips into fan-fiction territory (there’s a whole backstory involving a young Mrs Bennet), the opportunity to re-experience Austen’s world from another perspective yet again will be hard for some to pass up, even if this time there are no zombies.