I became interested in this novel because I am a fan of Jane Austen, and Pride & Prejudice is one of my favorite classics. And, like many other reviewers, at first I was concerned that Longbourn would simply be a re-imagining of P&P itself, but thankfully, it’s not.
Longbourn takes us behind the scenes of the Bennet household to the people who keep everything running smoothly — the servants. The story loosely follows the plot of P&P, but from the perspective of the servants. Their story centers on Sarah and Polly, the housemaids; Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper; Mr. Hill, the butler; and James Smith, the new footman/stable keeper who has a mysterious connection to Longbourn.
In P&P, the servants are rarely mentioned, so tangential and interchangeable are they to the Bennets, but here they take centerstage with their own dreams beyond the drudgery of their duties. The descriptions of the servants’ laborious chores reminded me never to complain about laundry. More than that, we are shown again and again how the class system keeps everyone to his or her station as if it is their destiny. If the “upstairs” women have little agency, the “downstairs” women have even less.
Sarah, a teenager, desperately wants to be seen. She wants validation and she’ll take it wherever she can get it. Polly, younger but also craving attention, nearly falls prey to Wickham’s promises of candy. Most of this goes unnoticed by the Bennets. In one poignant scene, Sarah inquires of the Bennet girls if they heard any news of James, who had left the household suddenly and without forwarding address. It takes them several minutes to recognize his name — the man who had served them and drove their carriage every day for months — and they didn’t even realize he had gone.
My one quibble is with a section of the plot involving James before he comes to Longbourn. For a long stretch, we are taken to a recounting of James’s war experience, which explains some of his current behavior. It is drawn out with almost no dialogue, and it doesn’t feel necessary, bordering on gratuitous. These scenes are given too much page time for the corresponding future plot point.
Don’t let this minor point deter you from reading Longbourn — a captivating story with universal appeal that will make you thankful how easy it is to cook today.
Four hearts for this one. ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
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