"Longbourn" was the first book I read for my "Pride Prejudice and Pastiches" reading challenge. I found it to be an extremely powerful and emotionally moving book.
It tells the story of a young woman who makes the hard choices to win a life for herself and to share that life with the man she loves. No, her name is not Elizabeth Bennet. Her name is Sarah and she's a maid at Longbourn. The story is mainly focused on Sarah, Mrs Hill, the housekeeper and James, the footman. The relationships between the three are deep and complex and entirely believable.
At first, I thought that focusing on Longbourn's domestic staff was a curious premise, like viewing Hogwarts through the eyes of the House Elves but I soon saw that it was much more than that.
Although it shares the same timeline as "Pride And Prejudice" and features all the main characters, with some, like Mr Wickham, being pivotal to the plot, "Longbourn" stands proudly on its own. It is not a pastiche, it's a work in the same universe. If you had never read "Pride And Prejudice", "Longbourn" would still be a powerful read. If you have read "Pride and Prejudice" then your appreciation of both books is deepened.
Like "Pride And Prejudice", "Longbourn" accepts the economic reality of avoiding destitution and the political reality of the inferior status of women and tries to understand what a woman might do, in these circumstances, to ensure her happiness and to commit her life to the man she loves.
The difference in social class adds additional challenges for Sarah and James (who definitely does not have £20,000 a year) which, to be understood, need to be set in the context of what was happening to working people in England during the Napoleonic wars: the lack of work, the surfeit of beggars, the fate of enlisted men, the destruction of the livelihoods of the weavers and so on. The "little bit of ivory" that Jo Baker works on abutts the one that Jane Austen used but is not the same.
The things that stuck with me most from this book:
- Sarah's courage and dignity as she navigates her limited choices and her strong passions. Her refusal to settle for the safe when the is the possibility to live a full and meaningful life.
- The brutality and futility of James' life as a soldier at war in Spain and Portugal, the scars it left and the strong, quiet man it created.
- The recognition of Wickham as a molester of young girls. Although I knew from "Pride and Prejudice" that Wickham has taken Lydia away when she was fifteen what that meant and the kind of man it made him hadn't sunk in. Watching him groom a very young maid with sweets and pennies made things much clearer.
- Sarah's sense of fading into invisibility when Darcy and others strode past her, paying her no more attention than a piece of furniture. It brought home the impact on identity of being a servant.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the history of the period, in "Pride and Prejudice" or in a powerful story about a struggle for dignity and happiness.