“Longbourn” by Jo Baker (2013) – upstairs and downstairs, move over

Normally, I wouldn’t have been tempted to touch a recreation of the Bennett world with a bargepole. The very idea seems like sacrilege, somehow.

Wrong!     Marvel of marvels!

This great read manages to scupper all doubt and add a whole other dimension to a world we think we know so well, by going underground or rather down into the servants’ quarters, and revisiting the story from the realm of domestic bliss.

Jo Baker is onto a winner, because you return to the sedate world of the Regency period, but without the rose-tinted specs and the luxury of having that extra pair of hands to literally do your dirty laundry.

“ ‘If Elizabeth Bennett had the washing of her own petticoats’, Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to trample through muddy fields’ ”.

Who does not fall in love with the quick-witted, feisty Elizabeth as she fights her battles and copes with the turmoil thrust upon her by the odd hapless sister and feckless mother? Yet who cannot also sympathise with the viewpoint of her trusty maidservant, about whom we hear very little, yet who follows her travails from a very different standpoint:

Elizabeth had a headache… Sarah would have loved to have a letter to look at herself; she would have loved to have the luxury of tears and headaches; the darkened parlour, a cool cloth for the forehead, and the peace that came with the family gone out to drink their tea”.

And how perfectly astutely she describes the blessed matriarchal reaction to the betrothal:

It is not, perhaps, an entirely happy situation after all, to gain something that has been wanted for years. The object itself, once achieved, is often found not to be exactly as anticipated… One finds that one does not know what to do with it at all. This did not apply to Mrs Bennett, however: Mrs Bennett’s happiness was pure, perfect and unalloyed”.

“Pride and Prejudice” is an impossible act to follow; yet this delightful, ballsy novel is an absolute treat. If you haven’t come across it, it is well worth a gambol through the turbulent passages of the Bennett household. As Diane Johnson comments, “someone must have been up very early in the morning to lay the fires and must have spent all day cooking their meals and must have waited outside in the cold with the coach and horses till the girls emerged from a party”. Indeedy. And to have cleverly created a whole credible subplot that interlinks all the ‘factual’ elements of the original story, while incorporating a new dénouement that keeps you turning the pages to the very last line – well, I do declare that Sarah might well have found herself quoting Pride and P herself :

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”

Dream on, dearie…maybe in the next life…

Rating : 9/10

Image taken from here.
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