In this absolutely wonderful take on the Bennet household of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE fame, we discover the fascinating stories happening downstairs beginning when wealthy, eligible Charles Bingley moves into nearby Netherfield Park. As Mrs. Bennet flutters about, scheming to marry off a daughter, the romantic prospects can only mean more work in the already overburdened servants' lives.
Housemaid Sarah, who works herself into bone weariness while yearning for a better existence, starts a dreary laundry day at 4:30, outside in the dark cold of a September morning. This weekly task begins with the pumping of water into pails, the icy pump handle inflaming Sarah's chilblains, while Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their five daughters snooze cozily, snug in their beds. Sarah, placing the slopping buckets on a yoke and staggering under the weight, muses that Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia present a pristine surface to the world, but their dirty linens reveal that underneath they are "frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures."
"LONGBOURN is pure pleasure, one of those books that you simultaneously hurtle through while also dreading reaching the end (and what an end! Such a thoroughly satisfying, emotional conclusion)."
Later, as Sarah scrubs a muddy petticoat at the washboard, the soap stinging her roughened, cracked hands, young Lydia Bennet complains to housekeeper Mrs. Hill that her life is intolerable, with people observing her and criticizing her. Meanwhile, the other housemaid, Polly, asks Sarah how much more laundry they have to wash, and Sarah enumerates sheets, pillow slips, and the dreaded monthly rags of all five daughters. These napkins must be boiled and scrubbed.
By 4:00, that washday afternoon, Sarah and young Polly are hanging the laundry on the line. As Sarah licks away the blood from a cracked chilblain, she notices movement along the lane between two enormous hedges. Polly doesn't see it, but Sarah catches sight of the shadowy figure of a man, loping along. Little does she know that this nebulous barely-there presence is the first domino to fall in a chain of events that will disrupt her life, changing it forever.
Mr. Bennet hires a manservant named James Smith. His comment that they are lucky to be able to employ a man, since there aren't many left in England due to the war in Spain, sets some of his daughters to frantic worry about finding a husband. Mrs. Bennet believes having a male servant will add to the family's class, but the family's servants are not so enthused. Sarah soon has a contentious relationship with James, who does not seem to actually notice her no matter what she does. James is a big mystery for Sarah, as well as for readers. Who is he? Where did he come from? What secrets does he guard so closely?
Meanwhile, word has arrived that there are new neighbors living in nearby Netherfield Park --- and one of them is Mr. Bingley, a single, young, wealthy man (!). As Mrs. Bennet petitions her husband for new clothes for her marriageable daughters, Sarah is dispatched to invite Mr. Bingley to dinner. At Netherfield Park, she encounters an extremely attractive and very friendly footman named Ptolemy, who appears to admire Sarah fully as much as she admires him. Unlike James, whose presence continues to constantly ruffle Sarah's feathers, Ptolemy only makes Sarah feel good.
LONGBOURN is pure pleasure, one of those books that you simultaneously hurtle through while also dreading reaching the end (and what an end! Such a thoroughly satisfying, emotional conclusion). Sarah is a nuanced, many-layered character. While her life as a servant (including the descriptions of emptying chamber pots) highlights the inequalities and injustices of class in Regency England, her story transcends her grim everyday reality. In addition, James's story, once uncovered, is eye-opening and intense.
This is a fabulous treat for Jane Austen fans, of course, who will admire the way author Jo Baker fits this story to the original one piece by piece, jigsaw-puzzle fashion. It also will be happily devoured by readers who enjoy a truly fine love story, historical fiction admirers --- really, anyone who adores a page-turning read starring a sympathetic and spirited main character.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on October 11, 2013