Longbourn by Jo Baker
Published by Black Swan
1st January 2014
'If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,' Sarah thought, 'she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.'
It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah's hands are chapped and raw. Domestic life below stairs, ruled with a tender heart and an iron will by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman, bearing secrets and the scent of the sea.
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.
The air was sharp at four thirty in the morning, when she started work. The iron pump-handle was cold, and even with her mitts on, her chilblains flared as she heaved the water up from the underground dark and into her waiting pail. A long day to be got through, and this was just the very start of it.
All else was stillness. Sheep huddled in drifts on the hillside; birds in the hedgerows were fluffed like thistledown; in the woods, fallen leaves rustled with the passage of a hedgehog' the stream caught starlight and glistened over the rocks. Below, the sow twitched, her piglets bundled at her belly. Mrs Hill and her husband, up high in their tiny attic, skep the black blank sleep of deep fatigue; two floors below, in the principal bedchamber, Mr and Mrs Bennet were a pair of churchyard humps under the counterpane. The young ladies, all five of them sleeping in their beds, were dreaming of whatever it was that young ladies dream. And over it all, icy starlight shone; it shone on the slate roofs and flagged yard and the necessary house and the shrubbery and the little wilderness off to the side of the lawn, and on the coveys where the pheasants huddled, and on Sarah, one of the two Longbourn housemaids, who cranked the pump, and filled a bucket, and rolled it aside, her palms already sore, and then set another bucket down to fill it too.
Longbourn by Jo Baker turns the classic novel Pride and Prejudice inside out by looking at the lives of the characters who help make the world of the Bennet family what it is. Mrs Hill runs a tight ship, along with her husband Mr Hill, and housemaids Sarah and Polly; always catering to Mrs Bennet's every beck and call. But why is Mrs Hill allowed, unannounced, into Mr Bennet's study? Sarah dreams of what life for the Bennet sisters could possibly be like, of the endless balls and dinner parties, and a man to fall in love with her. One day, a stranger appears over the fields, and becomes the new footman - he harbours secrets no one could possibly guess at.
Jo Baker's novel, is one in a growing trend of current fiction that takes a classic tale and looks at it from another angle - that of the servants point of view. It's a fascinating tale; while Mrs Bennet is flapping about what people will think of her dinner parties, Mrs Hill has to make it happen at the drop of a hat. When the 5 sisters need new outfits, it is Sarah who is sent to walk the long journey into town, and back, to fetch what they need. It's a beautiful tale, and so well-written that you can feel the chilblains on Sarah's hands that first cold morning. Whilst Longbourn made me want to go back and read Jane Austen's masterpiece again, to see if I could spot Sarah, or Polly or James in the turning of the pages, it also didn't, Longbourn is definitely a novel in it's own right.
Miss Chapter x