by Jo Baker
Toronto: Random House, 2013.
Jane Austen and her characters were focused on marriage; Jo Baker and hers have their eyes on the linens. The opening sentences of Baker’s novel say it all:
There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September. Washday could not be avoided, but the weekly purification of the household’s linen was nonetheless a dismal prospect for Sarah.
A far cry from “a truth universally acknowledged,” and more true to the spirit of Jane Eyre, which also echoes through this passage. Sadly for Sarah, the Bennets’ maid, there is every possibility that a walk will be taken that day, and that the ladies will return with their petticoats three inches deep in mud. The book is full of the details of the lives lived around the events that coat petticoats in mud, around the glittering glory of the Bennet girls at a dance or a dinner: the hours of preparation and clean-up that go into the glitter. We learn that the velvet ribbon that trims the dress must be unpicked before every wash and then sewn on again so that the dye will not bleed. We learn that the housemaids had to coat their hands in goose fat to soothe the chilblains that were caused by all the washing of linens.
Longbourn tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from below stairs, and we have the story (re)told in neat parallels. A James Smith arrives in the household at the same time that Bingley arrives at Netherfield Park. Sarah, like Lizzie, has two men to interest her. There is mystery and romance and an awful lot of lovely detail. Baker is marvellous at packing the novel full of sensory information: the sounds in the hedgerows in the early peppery-cold morning, foxes barking, the smell of spearmint, the pain of chilblains.
There is a good deal about reading in the book, too. Sarah reads a lot, and often reads aloud to the servants. Lizzie lends her Pamela, she burns through triple decker novels, and she learns a great deal about the mysterious footman, James Smith, by secretly looking through his books in his bedroom. It is clear that books are a mixed blessing, though. Through books, Sarah learns about the world beyond the walls of Longbourn, and she chafes against the restrictions of her role and her sheltered life. She yearns to travel and to get out from under the work that defines her. Here she is during one brief escape, in the company of Ptolemy Bingley, a black servant of the Bingley household:
he drew her along into the little wilderness, and they followed the path through the tangled dead grass. He lifted a low-hanging branch to let her pass. The rowans still had a few scarlet berries unpecked by the birds, and everything was hung with raindrops, and smelling of rot. Behind her, in her absence, the house was grinding along, its cogs turning and teeth linking, belts creaking, and there must come a moment–any moment now–when a cog would bite on nothing, and spin on air; some necessary act would go unperformed, some service would not be provided; the whole mechanism would crunch and splinter and shriek out in protest, and come to a juddering halt, because she was not there.
Mrs. Hill (she always gets the honourific) is a kindly woman, scrupulously fair and trusting, but she wants none of this kind of hanky panky from her staff. She comes marching along to put a stop to what could easily have been a threshold moment for Sarah. Sarah, to her credit, is smart enough to weigh her options as far as the men go, and while the plot travels neatly along the lines of the original for the first two volumes, the plot’s twists open up considerably in the third. Wickham comes off decidedly less appealing than in the original.
I was transfixed at how well and apparently seamlessly Baker shaped her novel in neat parings and echoes of the original. In addition to the lush detail about the house and its setting, I absolutely loved all of the information about life below stairs. I often find myself wondering who is doing the cooking in the finer fictional households, and this book gives all the details that we might desire. Baker also introduces into this retelling issues of race, slavery, class, inheritance, gender and homosexuality. Refreshing, to be sure, but a little forced if I am to be honest. I think that this book might have ticked fewer politically correct boxes and have been the stronger for it.
That is my only quibble, and it is a small one. A delightful read.
Longbourn is released in paperback this week.