“Longbourn” by Jo Baker; Alfred A. Knopf ($25.95)
Looking at the ever-growing list of contemporary fiction presuming to improve on Jane Austen (with or without zombies), readers may well wonder why they can’t leave the poor author alone. Happily, Jo Baker’s “Longbourn” is no mere riff but a fully imagined rejoinder to “Pride and Prejudice” that casts a sharp working-class eye on the aristocratic antics of Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy and their friends.
The Bennets’ housemaid Sarah is Baker’s heroine, and she seems far more heroic than the pampered family as we follow her through the never-ending rounds of backbreaking labor required to maintain a Georgian household. Muddy petticoats must be scrubbed clean with lye soap that leaves her hands cracked and bleeding; when inclement weather prevents young ladies from journeying to town for shoe-roses to ornament their dancing slippers, Sarah must trudge through the rain for them.
“If they send you on a fool’s errand in foul weather again … I’ll go instead,” says the new footman, James. Sarah has been suspicious of this young man, hired despite his shadowy background. But a tender love story grows from their undeniable attraction, made more poignant because servants are at the mercy of forces beyond their control.
We observe the Bennet girls’ romances at a distance, though the reprehensible Wickham behaves as unscrupulously here with the help as he does in Austen’s original with Lydia. Baker is not entirely unsympathetic to the upper-class characters; Mrs. Bennet, in particular, gets gentler treatment than Austen gave her.
But the author doesn’t airbrush the callousness of the privileged. Elizabeth doesn’t seem quite so charming after she responds to Sarah’s heartbroken inquiry about James (who has fled under duress from Wickham), “Oh, Smith! You mean the footman! You called him Mr. Smith. ... I thought you meant someone of my acquaintance. I thought you meant a gentleman.”
Austen’s novels amply demonstrate her cognizance of high society’s less-than-genteel underpinnings, albeit within the confines of her breeding. I think she would have appreciated Baker’s bracing rewrite from the underdog’s point of view. And I know she would have loved the well-deserved happy ending.