Longbourne by Jo Baker

Premised with the line, “What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant?” Longbourne takes us behind the scenes of Pride and Prejudice to the life of one of the Bennets’  young housemaids. Sarah awakes early to wash the family linen in the opening scene and imagines that five young ladies are “dreaming of whatever it was that young ladies dream” (3). She, however, dreams of moving somewhere like the Barbados, Antigua, or Jamaica, where, she imagines, people wear so few clothes that “there was consequently very little in the way of laundry” (4).

This is not an easy life. It’s funny (not to Sarah, of course) to see the effect of Elizabeth’s scampering through the mud on the servant who has to scrub the mud out of the petticoats. Polly, an even younger girl, is tired, too, and resents Mr. Hill, whom she feels is never around “when he [is] needed” (7). Polly has had to change her name to work at Longbourne because, “though [her] christened name is Mary,” someone has that name already in the family (8). Mr. Bennet’s request for “a slice of cake to go with his Madeira wine” in the library forces Mr. Hill awake when he has finally had a moment’s rest (11). This life is, however, better than the alternative, as Sarah remembers when she reflects on her childhood going hungry in a poorhouse after her parents died until Mrs. Hill rescued her and fed her (20). Sarah remembers a bit of happy childhood—a baby brother, two parents—but Polly was left “in a basket on a farmer’s doorstep”—in January—so she has really only ever known this life (54). Watching Sarah interact with the Gardiner and then Collins servants is interesting. The latter live in terror of Lady Catherine and her inspections, even cuffing Sarah when she “gad[s] about the countryside like a proper dollymop” (194).  She makes soap from a dead sow—and “it had never failed to astonish her . . . how soap that made things clean was such a foul thing in its own making” (193). So gross!

A mysterious traveling scotchman makes Sarah excited enough that she wishes “she had something nicer to wear” (9). For her, he represents happiness “in this out-of-the-way, quiet, entirely changeless place” (9). The excitement ends up appearing in different form: a man-servant being hired. His presence leads to Sarah rehearsing how to speak to a man and Mrs. Hill being distracted as well (and having a private conversation with Mr. Bennet, the details of which intrigue us but are only revealed much later).

Sarah’s perspective helps us see the Bennets so differently, as people demanding things at all hours, eating nice food while the servants eat souse “hammy, jellied, with melting bits of brain and stringy shreds of cheese and scraps of unexpected crunch” (11). Mr. Bennet does lend the servants books, and Jane is “a blanket over flames,” but the class divide is a sharp one, and we feel it (18). Mrs. Bennet is particularly thoughtless, whining to Hill about how Hill can’t possibly understand Mrs. Bennet’s sufferings, and tossing a beautiful gown the servants had worked hard to launder aside because she “must have something new” (41). As a result, Elizabeth and Jane offer Sarah her pick of their older dresses, and Elizabeth shows the good sense to recognize what kind of dress would best suit “village dances on the green” (52).  Even Elizabeth, who has a good heart, can’t quite place Sarah’s request inquiring after a “Mr. Smith” until she realizes, “Oh! Smith ! . . . The footman!” (265). Even when Elizabeth returns home because of Lydia, and we are so likely to pity her, having Sarah’s view, with worries so much more serious, makes the concerns of the Bennets seem trivial. “No doubt,” Sarah imagines with a hint of sarcasm, “it was moving, all this sisterly distress” (280). Sarah seems to understand them quite well, regarding Lydia and Kitty “as one collective creature” and disapproving of their flirtatiousness since any man would hesitate to attach “himself to a woman flirted with every other man of her acquaintance” (22).

Mrs. Hill takes care of the other servants like they are her children. When the new man starts, she treats him with respect, giving him a razor, soap, a towel, and her own scissors. When he keeps asking what work he may do, she makes him sit and then explains that here, “You eat first” (30). He is transformed, and so are we. Sarah takes a very quick impression of him, negative, of course (if he is to be the Darcy downstairs), but still can’t stop thinking about him after he accidentally rams into her “with a barrowload of dung” (27). Sarah, like Elizabeth with her man, is confused and knows not “what to make of [James] at all,” and James, like Darcy, asks her not to “trouble [her]self to try” (38-39). Just when we think we know what will happen, Sarah is overwhelmed by a “distressingly handsome” footman of Mr. Bingley’s (46).

We don’t get James’ thoughts until more than 50 pages in, but we like him even more once we do. Grateful to Mr. Bennet and eager to protect the Bennet women, James contemplates how “the world could be made entirely anew . . . because someone was kind” (56). (There are several such poignant, beautifully-written moments in this text.) While James waits outside a dance, instead of eating and drinking with the other coachmen, he makes sure the horses drink and “buckle[s] the horses up in blankets” (57). (The other coachmen seem to enact the BBC version of “a clumsy jig” 57). James looks different when the militia arrives, to Mrs. Hill’s eyes, “quite washed out” with exhaustion, but to Sarah’s eyes, “as though something had crawled in under his skin and left him feeling itchy and unclean” (60-61). Because we’re getting mostly Sarah’s point of view, we suspect he has something from which he is hiding, but unlike Sarah, who thinks his devotion to his work is “unnatural,” we suspect Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Hill know James’ history—and pity him as a result (61). When he takes the girls to Mrs. Phillips later, it is clear the presence of the militia bothers him, but though Wickham causes “a creeping chill at the back of James’ neck,” it is clear he doesn’t actually know the officer flirting with Elizabeth (100).

Very soon, it is clear to the reader that Sarah and James have strong feelings for each other, but with she so little understanding him and he so determined not to jeopardize his new home, how can that be resolved without assistance? Baker continues to develop the parallels between Darcy and James. James is indignant that Sarah was sent out in bad weather to procure new “shoe-roses” for the sisters and tells Sarah to “come and find” him the next time that happens, and he’ll go for her (121). She is rude and interprets his gesture of good will as his desire to “dictate” what she may or may not do. He responds: “I meant no harm by it. I would not deprive you of any pleasure” just as Darcy says to Elizabeth when they dance at Netherfield and she insists on forming an opinion of him (121). Like Elizabeth, Sarah delights her suitor by wanting “nothing from him” and brushing “him aside like a fly” (123).

Meanwhile, the handsome Netherfield man, whose name Sarah keeps forgetting to ask because he “so dazzle[s] her”—is clear competition, if not for her hand then at least for her heart (75). Mrs. Hill sees that, and so does James, and they both watch her a little more closely than usual. As the number of encounters increase, Sarah learns his name (Ptolemy) and his story (he was born a slave, but Charles’ father brought him to England and to freedom, though his mother was left behind 105). I trust Ptolemy less and less as he leads Sarah into the “little wilderness” and tells her his plans to set up a tobacco shop with “only the very finest Virginian tobacco”—made with the labor of slaves like his own mother (104-05). During the Netherfield Ball, Sarah gets herself drunk at home and walks in the dark to the estate. She has heard “dark tales of girls who went out on some silly spree, and just never came back, or who came back strange, or with a baby in them” (127-28). Instead of that going awry as we expect, things get very exciting, very quickly—much more quickly than I predicted—when Sarah makes two big decisions on the same night, clearing up her own confusion about what she wants, and possibly James’. “It was a situation . . . almost guaranteed to amplify desire,” which we see immediately (157). Sarah lives in her body “differently” than she had before; “it had become a thing of luxury and delight” (174).

Mr. Collins’ visit is far more important to the servants that I had ever had reason to consider: if Mr. Bennet were to die, Mr. Collins could fire them all—or keep them, if he sees them necessary to his happiness. They work hard to make sure it is the latter. We see Mr. Collins in a more positive light as he responds to Sarah’s inquiries about whether speaking “to the neighbour’s footman” requires “religious or moral” contemplation (113). He basically tells her not to worry. Then she empties his chamber pot. The news of Charlotte’s engagement is a huge relief to Mrs. Hill, who knows Miss Lucas to be “a steady young woman” with knowledge of “the value of a good servant”; furthermore, Charlotte has long preferred Mrs. Hill’s lemon tarts above all others (155). Mary gets more credit for thinking than she perhaps deserves, and so does Mr. Collins whom, here, Mary loves and regrets losing to Charlotte Lucas (205).

Wickham, meanwhile, is causing trouble, staring at Sarah and calling James a coward for not, as James puts it, “slaughtering mill-hands” (as opposed to actual enemies) (162). Sarah also worries about Wickham’s interest in Polly, “a scrap of a thing” who hasn’t “even got her monthlies yet,” and since we know what Wickham likes, that interest concerns us, too (164). Wickham knows James’s secret and threatens him after James protects Polly from Wickham’s advances. Terrified that “they’ll string” him up and “break” him “on the wheel,” James has no choice, he thinks, but to run (211). James’ identity, too, shouldn’t shock us, but does. Whoa. And then double shock when we learn the identity of his father and then a third when we learn why a certain marriage happened and how it serves both parties’ needs without fulfilling most people’s ideals of marriage.

In volume 3, as we travel back in time, we learn what made Miss Gardiner, pretty, “sweet and full of laughter,” become the querulous Mrs. Bennet we know (218-19). Going back into war with James is disheartening; we see why he longs to return to “the most important” man in “that village near Meryton,” the only one who “cared enough to ask whether James was happy” (239). Once James disappears, the chapters get much shorter, and we get in the heads of Mrs. Hill and Sarah, primarily. The two of them now know the other’s secret, but that hardly alleviates their suffering. In the last chapter, every scene is vivid and wonderful and truly rewards the characters and the reader who so badly wants them to find happiness at last.

Published in: on March 22, 2014 at 5:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

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