I feel like I’ve read a series of books in which important plot points defy the laws of coincidence. Meaning that an event occurs or a detail is revealed that makes me say hmmm? It’s too neat or too unlikely and I am incapable of truly accepting the information no matter how great its impact.
Longbourn by Jo Baker is, unfortunately, full of such moments. Subtitled, Pride and Prejudice: The Servants’ Story, the novel tells about the hidden lives of the servants in Jane Austen’s beloved tale.
The details of the work, how the lives of the Bennet girls impact their day, is well done. Notes of tea leaves sprinkled to clean floors, lye burning their hands as they scrub dress hems clean, or recycling washing water to clean the flagstone outside are neatly incorporated. In one passage Sarah, the housemaid at the centre of this novel, feels as though her job has seeped into her very skin:
She lifted her hands to sniff them: grease and onions and kitchen soap. This must be the smell she carried with her wherever she went, whenever it was not something worse.
Sarah is aware of herself and how she is seen or, more accurately, not seen by her employers. The servants presence and work are both taken for granted and ignored by the Bennet girls, but Baker does a good job of showing how the servants’ fears about their future are as equal to Mrs. Bennet’s and her girls. Baker falters when describing the lives the servants try to make for themselves outside of work, making choices that seem out of touch for the time period and forced for dramatic purposes.
The love life of the characters is the best example. The servants from the various households interact as the Bennet daughters are courted. A footman from the Bingley household is eager to make an impression on Sarah – but Ptolemy is not just a footman with grand ideas for his future (he wants to open a tobacco shop), he is a black footman.
Why Baker felt the need to include this twist is beyond me. Pride and Prejudice is set in the early 1800s, which means the slave trade (but not slavery itself) had only just been outlawed. The likelihood of an upper class, original old-money family having a black footman seems impossible, especially in a position that, if Downton Abbey has taught me anything, requires some training.
But Baker doesn’t stop there. I went from hmmm to whatever when the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, started looking to Ptolemy as a potential husband for Sarah. I know the rules were different for the servant class, but I’m pretty sure mixed-marriage was off the books for a long time coming. And the reason Mrs. Hill was even looking to Ptolemy for Sarah was the sudden absence of the housemaid’s suitor, the sometimes footman and general labourer at Longbourn, James Smith.
The Bennet women forget that James was even a part of their lives. They even forget his name. His importance is secondary to the pursuit of marriage for the Bennett daughters. The strain of his disappearance pulls at the household as Lydia has run off with Wickham.
I admit I enjoyed that his name could be anybody’s. Even today, James Smith would turn up a lot of Google hits. The blandness of his name makes people think he is a nobody, but to Sarah, to Mrs. Hill, to the people who love him – he is irreplaceable.
Smith’s story is also somewhat of a misstep, in my opinion. Baker fills out his back story from a rough sketch of his childhood through the rough years of living as a solider in the Peninsular War to just as he joins the Bennet household. His story is interesting and well told but it also takes you far away from Longbourn. The twist in his history (another thing to make me go hmmm) and his connection to Longbourn don’t really make up for the amount of time spent away from Sarah and the storyline provided by Pride and Prejudice.
The time taken for Smith’s story is especially frustrating after Sarah decides to quit her job with the newly married Elizabeth to find the long absent Smith after she gets an idea of where to find him. Sarah’s journey north, on foot, on her own is completely skipped over and the story picks up when the two lovers are reunited. The story flashes forward again to wrap up with the two of them arriving back home to Longbourn.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Longbourn or that Baker isn’t an accomplished writer, just that I couldn’t lose myself in this story.