I once thought I might write an essay entitled ‘Perambulations through the Shrubbery or how Jane Austen Ruined My Life’. That was as far as I got. As the title implies, I was trying to be ‘clever’ which never goes over well because it is more about ego than good writing. The theme of the intended essay was that of over-romanticizing life in Georgian England at a time when it took an army of servants to create a relatively comfortable home for even one individual. You only have to live through a modern day blackout in the middle of winter to get some idea of just how difficult it would have been to maintain any sort of quality of life without the conveniences of central heating and the like. In early childhood my family vacations were spent in a country house that had neither electricity nor warm running water. There was a big, oil fuelled stove in the kitchen for cooking and kerosene lamps for light. These novelties were tremendously diverting for little children. The light of the kerosene lamps was especially charming and lent a comforting golden glow to the evenings. But for my poor mother this must have been more of an endurance test than a holiday as the job of cleaning and refilling those lamps every morning was endless to say nothing of keeping three children clean in a house that had only cold water. Nonetheless, Jo Baker has done away with any need for me to write such an essay as her novel, Longbourn has done a much better job than I could ever do in dispelling the myth of a Janeite country idyll. The sub title for this novel is Pride and Prejudice, the Servant’s Story. The novel is written as the Through The Looking Glass version of P&P from the point of view of those living below stairs. Mrs. Hall is the housekeeper and cook in charge of domestic issues, her husband is the butler, Sarah and Polly are the two maids ‘of all work’, and James is the new and mysterious footman who takes on everything from serving dinner to chauffeuring the family’s horse drawn carriage. Caring for a large household was pure drudgery. Laundry was accomplished by soaking clothes in lye soap and scrubbing the sheets and towels with the bare hands (there were no rubber gloves in the 1700’s, in fact, rubber was not developed for domestic use until some two hundred years after Jane Austen’s death). Servants worked up to fourteen hours a day and were paid very little more than their room and board. Water had to be drawn from a well, chamber pots had to be emptied and fireplaces cleaned every day. Floors were swept using old tea leaves scattered over the floor to keep down the dust and rugs were dragged out doors and hung on a line to have the dirt beaten out of them. This book would be no fun if it simply described the cold and misery of working as a servant in eighteenth century England. The real interest lies in the characters and how they go about fulfilling their dreams despite the adverse conditions they have to live under. Sarah wants to travel to London to see the world, James has seen too much of the world and wants to settle far away from it in the country, Mrs. Hall seeks to reclaim the love of her youth and Mr. Hall has a lover who, according to the mores of the time, must never be acknowledged. There are stories, secrets and subplots that belong to the servants alone. However, while the servant’s are going about their business we catch glimpses of all the drama that drives the plot of Pride and Predjudice. There is, for example, the excitement fluttering around Mrs. Bennet and her daughters when they meet the wealthy, eligible bachelors, Bingly and Darcy and more excitement with the arrival of the despised Mr. Collins who is heir to the family estate. Then there is the occasion when Mrs. Hall must medicate the hysterical Mrs. Bennet with laudanum when her youngest daughter elopes with the devious Mr. Wickham. All the familiar and well -loved scenes are touched upon while Sarah and James fall in love and the secrets and intrigues of the servants’ lives are revealed.
I am not a fan of those writers who choose to imagine spin offs from Jane Austen’s brilliantly imagined novels. They cannot be augmented, expanded upon or improved in any way because they are perfect. I agree with the author Joanna Trollope who in a recent literary talk stated that Jane Austin deliberately stopped her stories when the Happily ever after arrived because the Happily ever after is a totally boring place to be. You have only to read P.D.James Death comes to Pemberly to have evidence of this. Here, the married Lizzy Bennet has no wit, no sparkle, no spunk. She has become an all too happy domestic, grand lady raising her perfect children keeping busy looking after her perfect aristocratic husband and arranging boring social occasions. P.D. James is one of my favourite authors and I hate to be critical but, she should never have attempted this book. Longbourn, on the other hand, is not an attempt to parody Pride and Prejudice or re-write or add to it rather, it is quite an independent novel written in modern language that simply uses Pride and Prejudice as a backdrop for the narrative and explores the the deplorable conditions domestic servants endured during this period. I thought this novel was very finely done and I think it stands up well as an historical novel in its own right. It ends as it should, and as Jane Austen would have approved, that is to say, just before any of the aforementioned Happily ever after has the chance to settle in. I would only add, these endings are not necessarily the ones you might expect.