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Review: 'Longbourn' looks behind the pretty surfaces of 'Pride and Prejudice'

Pride and Prejudice has such ardent fans today because it's a 19th century novel that's deliciously modern. There's a great romance between the vivacious Elizabeth Bennet and the brooding Mr. Darcy, but there's also intricate maneuvering for wealth and social status. The people in Jane Austen's world are on a quest for love, money or both, and they won't be stopped. Who can't understand that?

Austen died after writing only six novels; her fans wish she'd been as prolific as Nora Roberts. To make up for the gap, there's a cottage industry of books aimed at extending her characters' adventures. There are rewritings of Pride and Prejudice as told from Mr. Darcy's point of view and imaginings of what happened to the couple after they married and moved to the palatial estate of Pemberley. Some of these novels verge on the silly. (Mr. Darcy visiting prostitutes with the real-life poet Lord Byron?) Others are forgettable pastiche.

A recent entry, though, is worth the time of Pride and Prejudice fans, as well as anyone who enjoys historical fiction. Longbourn, by Jo Baker, tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants who wait on the Bennet family at their titular ancestral home. It develops the kind of fictional contrast between classes found in such popular television series as Upstairs, Downstairs and, of course, the current hit Downton Abbey.

In Longbourn, the focus is on Sarah, an orphan and a housemaid to the Bennet girls. While it's clear that being a maid has saved her from utter destitution, it's a life that's also dirty, tiring and boring.

Sarah scrubs out the Bennet girls' dirty underwear and petticoats, she slops through rain and mud for bows for their shoes, and she slips and falls in hog manure. The boredom, though, is interrupted when a new footman, James Smith, arrives. Just as he begins to capture Sarah's attention, a rival comes into the picture: Ptolemy Bingley is a handsome footman to Jane Bennet's suitor Charles Bingley. He's also the mixed-race son of one of the family's slaves abroad, and it's implied he shares the same father as Charles.

While Ptolemy flirts with Sarah, James stews over his feelings and whether he can risk showing his feelings to her. James, you see, is a man with a past, and it's here that Baker's novel takes its most fascinating turn. In Pride and Prejudice, soldiers are merely dashing extras who entertain the Bennet sisters; the dim-witted Lydia Bennet even shares as flighty gossip the fact that "a private had been flogged." In Longbourn, Sarah witnesses that whipping in all its horrific detail. We eventually find out that James served as a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, witnessing horrifying episodes of violence and starvation.

The novel's other characters get equally interesting back stories, particularly the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, and her husband, the butler Mr. Hill. Their lives are linked to the past of the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, who weren't always the bickering couple of the original novel. Longbourn also gives a new empathetic look at Mr. Collins — an uptight prig in the original book — who's one of the few people who actually appreciates all the work the servants do to make the estate of Longbourn livable. His visit to the house is a fascinating episode in the new novel. In interviews, Baker has said she took care to match events precisely to Pride and Prejudice, and I spotted no deviations to distract from my enjoyment.

As modern readers, we know well that the lives of the servants can be just as engrossing as the glittering people they wait on; Downton Abbey's Season 4 premiere tonight proves that. Longbourn takes a smart idea and turns into a real treat with well-crafted plot lines and sophisticated writing style.

Longbourn

By Jo Baker

Knopf, 352 pages, $25.95

Review: 'Longbourn' looks behind the pretty surfaces of 'Pride and Prejudice' 01/02/14 [Last modified: Thursday, January 2, 2014 3:47pm]

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