It’s hard to believe that Pride and Prejudice is 200 years old this year. P&P is one of the best known romances, and in particular it is to P&P that we owe historical romance’s fantasy with the Regency. Longbourn is a heartbreaking, beautifully written, challenging novel that attempt to show what the Regency might have been like for the servants of the Bennets and the Darcys.
Longbourn is a story about the servants who live in the Bennet family home. In Pride and Prejudice, the servants are a ghostly presence – sometimes spoken of (Mrs. Bennet assures Mr. Collins that they are able to keep a cook) but rarely seen and never heard. In Longbourn, the roles are reversed. So, the first thing you need to understand about the book is that this isn’t really a retelling of Pride and Prejudice. The events of that book happen very much in the background and only take the foreground when they directly affect the servants. For instance, we know the Bennets are going to a ball, because the footman, James, has to drive them, and the maid, Sarah, is expected to wait up for them all night with a candle, ready to let them in whenever they come home. As Lorraine said in a comment on SB Sarah’s review, this is a story “around” P&P, not “about” P&P. As readers, we have no reason to care about the lives of the Bennets except inasmuch as that if the Bennets lose their home, so do the servants.
The Bennets employ only a few servants and those servants have a difficult time managing the large household. Mr. Hill, the butler, is not expected to live past another year or so. Consequently, his duties are relatively light. Mrs. Hill is the head housekeeper. She took in an orphan, Sarah, when Sarah was six, and serves as a strict boss and a prickly but affectionate mother figure. Sarah is now an adult, and is the maid. Polly is another orphan. She is about twelve or thirteen (she doesn’t know her age) and is the scullery maid. And James is a new servant – the footman. Sarah and James strikes sparks – or as many sparks as are possible given that they barely have time to speak to each other in passing. And Sarah also has an interest in Mr. Bingley’s footman, who makes her hope for a life away from Longbourn.
Most variations on P&P seem pretty light-hearted. There are tons of variations in style, some that are romance focused, some that are mysteries, and there are some versions with paranormal elements (I love Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). But if I pick up a variation on P&P, I expect something entertaining but not heavy. This book is an exception. The second thing you need to know about Longbourn is that although it contains moments of humor, hope, and love, it is a book that deals with very emotionally and physically painful lives. The servants’ lives are constrained not only by their grueling work but also by their lack of choices (when Sarah’s workload is lessened, she’s surprised to find that she still feels trapped). Every moment of their lives is dependent on the whims of their employers and their labor is physically exhausting. This is excellent historical fiction, but not what my husband would call “A light romp”.
This book is a beautiful love story, but not an entirely happy one. Most people would not consider this to be a romance novel (it certainly doesn’t seem to be intended as one) because the ending is ambiguous, the romance develops late in the book and isn’t always central to the story, and because the book lacks the “fantasy” element most romance novels have. By ‘fantasy’ element, I mean that most romances, even the more angsty, dark romances, have elements for the reader to desire other than the love and the hot sex. Maybe the main characters live on a spaceship, or in a castle, or maybe one of them lives in a cute funky apartment with homemade eclectic furniture. Maybe they have great clothes or eat yummy food. There is something attractive about their worlds and/or their lives even when their lives are challenging.
There’s not a lot of beauty or fun to latch onto in Longbourn. I cared very deeply about Sarah and James’ romance, but there was not a single thing about their lives that I desired. And although I did feel that I knew what would happen in the end, and that it was a realistically happy ending, I also thought that Sarah and James’ lives would always be extremely difficult. So you need to know that this is a realistic love story about deeply disadvantaged people who will always have to struggle, during a time period that involves both beauty and squalor.
What I loved about this book was the characters (to me, they seemed layered and complex and real), the historical details (even the gross ones – I’m a history fan and I’m especially interested in the details of everyday life, so even the emptying of chamber pots fascinated me) and the quality of the prose. Here’s a sample. Not all passages are so heavy on commas, but I still like this one. It’s from a period of time when Jane and Lizzy are visiting relatives and Elizabeth has taken Sarah with her. I love how it combines a listing of the most mundane aspects of life with this sudden, gasp-worthy poetic phrase:
For James, all this time, Longbourn was not so much quiet as sharp-edged: all softness gone from it, the household jarred and jangled. Though fewer in number without their elder sisters, the young ladies generated considerably more noise. When it was not Mary’s scales and arpeggios, or the same Italian air begun over and over again till the same tricky movement broke her off, it was Kitty and Lydia squabbling about the ownership of an article of clothing, or shrieking over the gossip. More often it was both faltering piano and screeching girls, while Mr. Bennet shut himself in his library and only emerged at the sound of the dinner bell, and Mrs. Bennet complained to no one’s hearing of headaches, and Polly carried heavy ewers up the stairs and stinking chamber pots back down, and Mrs. Hill, moist-eyed, chopped onions, and Mr. Hill, having sipped sherry in the cellar, slipped discreetly out of the house to meet a friend. James drove out when required, and waited on table, and sponged the mud off coat-tails, and dabbed the grass stains off pelisses, and teased the candle grease out of shirt fronts, and lugged water and wood, and sometimes even enjoyed going about with little Polly to collect the eggs or herbs or salad leaves, but felt, all the time, suspended, like a piece of music broken abruptly off, a note left hanging in the air. (p. 199)
One controversial aspect of Longbourn is its portrayal of Mr. Bennet. I have a slight anti-Mr. Bennet bias here. Particularly in the original novel, I find Mr. Bennet to be a man of serious flaws. On the good side: he’s funny, he loves to read, he likes Jane and Lizzy, and he values intelligence (including in his daughters). As judgmental as I may be about some of his actions, I’d still love to hang out with him and enjoy his dry wit and browse his library shelves. But his flaws are many and they cause great harm to his family. He is a neglectful parent, a poor householder, and in my opinion an emotionally abusive husband. Mrs. Bennet is a silly, self-absorbed, obnoxious person, but she has real valid concerns about her future and that of her daughters – concerns that Mr. Bennet is partly responsible for (by not “economizing”) and that he refuses to acknowledge. Mr. Bennet is not a malicious person, but he is lazy. His way of handling life is to make life as easy and quiet and convenient or himself as possible.
In Longbourn, Mr. Bennet is revealed to have a secret. My feeling is that in Longbourn, Mr. Bennet acts terribly, but he behaves no worse than many men of his stature and better than some. His actions are neither inconsistent with the way I’ve always interpreted his character nor inconsistent with the times and class in which he lived. He fails to be heroic and he manages to avoid outright malice. He does the best he can without “causing a stir” – which is very Mr. Bennet-y. If you are very fond of Mr. Bennet you may be upset by his portrayal but I found him to be very much in tune with how he’s described in P&P (some of the adaptations make him more amiable).
I don’t want to suggest that this book is one of unrelieved darkness. One element that I found incredibly moving was the way the servants form a constructed family. They aren’t a cozy family, but they care about each other and they try to protect each other. Watching the older servants, Mrs. Hill and Sarah, work together to protect the youngest servant, Polly, from the predations of Wickham was both heartbreaking and hopeful. This book depicts many cruelties, but people find ways to come together and love each other and protect each other even in the most powerless of positions. It’s easy to waft away in a cloud of romance on a yacht but I give my true admiration to people who find time to love one another and help one another even when they have to carry chamber pots outdoors in the rain.
I loved this book for its prose style, for its characters, and for its clever construction. I also loved it for the way it made me think about the Regency period and also about our own. I don’t have servants, but most of the things I that I own and that I eat are constructed or sewn or grown or picked or sold by people who work harder than I will ever know and who often live lives of great suffering. This book reminded me of their invisible presence in my life and made me want to be more responsible about my own decisions. Above all, the use of language was lovely and the character’s were moving. I highly recommend this book as long as you know what you are getting into!
Other bright minds in the romance community have also examined Longbourn in addition to Carrie, including Pam Rosenthal at The Hooded Utilitarian.