The Upstairs, Downstairs/Downton Abbey of Jane Austen is Jo Baker’s Longbourn. In this unique retelling you get to witness the other side of the Bennet drama from the perspective of the servants. Sarah is our main narrator, but we do get to see through the eyes of Mr and Mrs Hill, Polly and James, a new hire with a very mysterious past. (Caution: there will be spoilers ahead.)
I know many people are not a fan of this re-imagining of the classic that is Pride and Prejudice. Yes, it is very bleak and up front about the ins and outs of daily life in the Regency era (bed pans, period rags, endless chores) but I really liked that. I think Jane Austen wrote in such a subtly snarky way to make us notice the ridiculous aspects of society, why is it so much worse to bluntly show the behind-the-scenes ridiculousness?
I think what makes readers uncomfortable is seeing the faults in our favorite people. Mr Bennet is a cheating, selfish man. Elizabeth too is inconsiderate of the servants, sending Sarah in the downpour for NEW show roses at the last minute. Even Lizzie’s rebellious walks into the mud are turned on their head when we see that they really create much more work for the staff, who are already working their fingers to the bone.
This is an important perspective because it is an accurate one. Not everyone in the Regency era would have gotten to go to balls and sit around reading. In fact, the majority of people would not have been born to that privilege. In the same vein of Austen, Baker manages to show us the frivolity of the upper class and the faults in those we wanted to be faultless.
The scandalous side story of Mrs Hill having Mr Bennet’s illegitimate son didn’t actually hit me that hard. Married men of a certain status have had mistresses for a long time. In fact, it seems like the taboo on mistresses is more modern than anything else. The aspect of this liaison that was most intriguing was the idea that a son would have had an major impact on Mr Bennet’s relationship with Mrs Bennet. Suddenly it becomes more clear why they tried so long for a son, and why it would have been more of a shock that they never had one.
Overall I really enjoyed this more realistic side of the story we’ve seen so many times. I liked that the few glimpses we did get of the Pride and Prejudice story were put into the context of extra dinner preparations, laundry and dodging drunken soldiers. This doesn’t end with a double-wedding, and it shouldn’t because that wouldn’t have been feasible for the serving class. If anything I think they lack of rose-tinted glasses gives us a better understanding and appreciation of the realities around which Austen herself wrote and moved in.
-Admin B is a journalist, filmmaker and nerd.