Pride and Prejudice may have inspired more spin-offs, rewrites, imitations, and alternate versions than any other work of fiction—did the world really need another one? When it's as compelling and enlightening as Jo Baker's Longbourn, most certainly. Longbourn is not an attempt to imitate Austen's style or plot; instead it jumps off from the well-known story to show us what else was happening in the world that Austen very consciously kept small and contained, that famous “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.”
The story is told through the other people in the Bennet household, the ones who merit only a mention or two in the original. If we scour the book, we find them: there's a Sarah and another unnamed housemaid, a Mrs. Hill, a footman, and a butler. In Longbourn, Sarah is a young woman struggling with the brutal fact that her entire life is spent taking care of other young women who have everything she naturally desires. The second housemaid Polly is very young and naive, still fairly happy as long as she can shirk her work and filch some sugar. The kindhearted housekeeper Mrs. Hill has suffered enough heartache to feel grateful for her relatively privileged position, though occasionally spares a thought about the unfairness of life, particularly when the security of the servant hall is threatened by Elizabeth's refusal of Mr. Collins:
“What it is to be young and lovely and very well aware of it. What it is to know that you will only settle for the keenest love, the most perfect match.”
At first, Longbourn follows the basic structure of Pride and Prejudice, down to being broken into three volumes. (And everything that happens in the story, the author notes, is based on the exact events in the original—every note brought by a footman, every dinner.) It begins with the arrival of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy at Netherfield, which is paralleled by the arrival of two new men in the lives of the Longbourn servants: a new footman named James Smith, and one of Mr. Bingley's footmen, Ptolemy Bingley, a frequent deliverer of notes. The Netherfield footman is here revealed to be a former slave on the sugar plantation of Mr. Bingley's father—and quite possibly Mr. Bingley's half-brother. James also seems to have an unrevealed connection to the Bennet family.
For Sarah, the arrival of both men brings a potential for more than her current existence of endless drudgery, which keeps her “so entirely at the mercy of other people's whims and fancies.” Tol is ambitious and resourceful; she can tell that he'll raise himself up to a better position someday. But though it's not as sensible a choice, she's more drawn to the quiet, hardworking, secretive James. When James's secrets catch up with him, Sarah must decide how important love is compared to security, a far harder decision in her case than in Elizabeth's. In the end, she must give up all hope of help from her “betters,” who can never recognize that she has needs and desires of her own, and make her own way towards happiness.
It's fascinating to see the Bennets through the eyes of their servants. From their own perspectives their life is one of frugality and even deprivation; to Sarah, with her never-ending chilblains, it's one of comfort and extravagance beyond imagining. Even when Elizabeth is miserable, Sarah envies her: “she would have loved to have the luxury of tears and headaches: the darkened parlour, a cool cloth for the forehead…” And while Mrs. Bennet endlessly laments the unfairness of her daughters not being able to inherit their father's estate, she never realizes that an even more blatant example of unfairness is right under her nose.
Longbourn gives importance and understanding not just to the servants, but to other neglected characters in the story. Sarah has some fellow feeling for the despised Mr. Collins: “He could not help where he had come from, or what chances nature and upbringing had given, or failed to give, him.” And Mary is seen as a pathetic girl full of dreams of being needed, not “just the plain, awkward, overlooked middle child.” The other characters are recognizably themselves, but have a darker side from this perspective. Jane is still sweet; Elizabeth is still charming, and even carelessly kind to Sarah. But she never considers how her choices affect Sarah—her carefree walks creating massive amounts of nasty work for those who must wash her muddied petticoats, her visits taking Sarah away from home.
In many ways, the story extends the characters to their logical extremes, showing what else might have happened to a Mr. Bennet who's thoughtlessly susceptible to attractive women and a Wickham who would callously run off with a fifteen-year-old girl… and an Elizabeth who's forced to check her natural vivacity. If you love the original, it can be painful to see the characters in this light—but it feels like an equal truth rather than a contradiction of the original text.
Longbourn brings history to a book in which it is notably absent. Austen felt no need to go into what exactly the militia was doing in Merryton, or anywhere else, but to a young man like James, it's of tremendous importance. The third volume of the book breaks with the previous structure for an extended flashback about James' horrific experiences in the army, making us hope even more for a happy ending for him and Sarah.
Pride and Prejudice is complete, even perfect, in its own right; it does everything it sets out to do. But this gritty yet very humane novel reveals that there was more to class issues in Austen's time than just what was happening between the middle and ruling classes. It's powerful reading for anyone who wants to truly understand the world our beloved characters inhabited. And ultimately, Longbourn upholds the basic premise of Pride and Prejudice — that some compromises cost too much, that it is better to choose love.