Jo Baker’s engaging new novel Longbourn focuses on the life of housemaid Sarah and her fellow servants for a behind-the-scenes retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Fans of Austen’s novel will be intrigued by the lives of the underclass in Regency England, no less intriguing and dramatic than those of the gentry they serve.
Sarah, orphaned and raised almost as a daughter to housekeeper Mrs. Hill, fills her days from early morning to late night with the strenuous labor it takes to run a country household. Baker fills her novel with detailed accounts of the housemaid’s chores, from emptying the chamber pots to heading to town in the rain and cold to purchase ornamental roses to decorate the Bennet girls’ shoes. Readers will learn fascinating period housekeeping hints, like the fact that cold tea leaves sprinkled on floors will bind with dust, hair and insects, making sweeping easier.
Even as she supports the sisters in their complicated courtships, she dreams of a life of her own. She becomes flustered in her dealings with Mr. Bingley’s handsome, flirtatious footman Ptolemy, the man charged with delivering letters. His goal is to open a tobacco shop one day. Mysterious James Smith, the newly arrived servant with hazel eyes and a secret cache of seashells, intrigues her as he lightens her daily work burdens and takes an interest in her. Sarah wonders “Could she one day have what she wanted, rather than rely on the glow of other people’s happiness to keep her warm?” Longbourn is a book to savor almost as much as its inspiration.