The classic novel “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen has been the starting point for many novelists, and in “Longbourn” (Alfred A. Knopf, 339 pages, $25.95), named for the estate of the Bennet family in “Pride and Prejudice,” Jo Baker takes the original comedy of manners to the servants’ quarters where the same level of drama can be found.
Since Sarah was taken in by the Bennet family as a young orphan, she has served the family in many ways that would never make the page of any of Austen’s novels: Sarah scrubs the filthy undergarments of the five Bennet sisters and their parents, she carries full chamber pots down long flights of stairs, and she slogs into town in the pouring rain to fetch those beautiful little shoe roses that the Bennet girls must have for their upcoming ball. Sarah’s rugged life is that of a housemaid, not of a maiden, as she is reminded every day.
That doesn’t mean that Sarah doesn’t have her own woes of the heart. Like the Bennet girls upstairs, Sarah is torn between two men: the mysterious James Smith, who appears at Longbourn one day and is immediately employed as a footman, and Ptolemy Bingley (the servant to Jane Bennet’s love interest Mr. Bingley), a “mulatto” who is turned away again and again by Longbourn’s longtime housekeeper and defender of the Bennet name, Mrs. Hill. As Sarah quibbles with Smith, she is also attracted to him, and although she is drawn to Ptolemy Bingley she can’t quite forget Smith.
Of course, as a maid Sarah is not expected to worry about her own needs let alone love, but Sarah is increasingly unwilling to accept that her life will always be about sewing petticoats or waiting up for her master’s family to come home after a long enjoyable evening. She wants her freedom, and without wanting to spoil any plots, let’s just say she finds freedom in ways that the Bennet girls, let alone Jane Austen, would scarcely have dreamed of.
Baker is smart to capitalize on the continuing popularity of Austen’s novels, as well as the increased interest in television shows like “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs Downstairs,” and her writing style draws admirably from Austen’s.
But I guess the real question is this: Will “Longbourn” appeal to readers who have never read “Pride and Prejudice”? Of course it will … but those readers may not appreciate it as much as readers who are familiar with the fine details of Austen’s classic.
Meganne Fabrega is a book critic and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.