It never really ceases to amaze me that anyone should consider carrying on the story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy. But they do!
If you Google this subject and get the right link you would be surprised to find not one or two, but dozens of these books, by authors whom one might have considered rather above such practices. Did you know that Colleen McCullough had written a novel called The Independence of Mary Bennett? I did read Death comes to Pemberley by PD James, not one of her best, and someone once gave me (in a misguided spurt of generosity) the audio version of Emma Tennant’s assay into this territory and there are countless others; so it was something of a surprise to find myself enjoying the latest in that long tradition.
Longbourn by Jo Baker is the servants’ story of the Bennett Household. This is not a continuation, it follows the original closely, but entirely from the servants’ point of view. The washing, ironing, feeding, tidying, the emptying of night soil, it is all there. The chilblains, roughened hands, blisters and the early rising, late nights waiting for revellers to return from Netherfield or Meryton; the running to and fro, and up and down stairs with messages, trays, hot water, endless small errands for one person or another in good weather or bad; the total lack of privacy and at the same time the invisibility of it all. A well run household should look effortlessly immaculate, maintained by a team of invisible and efficient servants.
This is Downton Abbey for the Regency period without the addition of Victorian plumbing: outside “necessary houses”, pumps to get water, fetching and carrying in wet and cold, washing days and baking days, cleaning, mending and making do. Sarah and Polly both ‘saved’ from the poorhouse, and the strange Mr James Smith who turns up out of the blue, all under the iron rule of Mrs Hills and Mr Hills (something of a toothless wonder, in every sense until you know what he did) make up the complement at Longbourn and the strangely attractive mulatto, Ptolemy Bingley, the footman from the sugar plantations that fund the wealthy Bingleys.
It is hard for us to remember perhaps, that there was once a time when, if you didn’t own a servant – you probably were one.
Like all good novels, there are secrets and lies. Snatched kisses, misunderstanding and mistrust; slowly blossoming love and so on. Like its original, it is a romantic novel…
I haven’t read, and don’t intend to, the numerous other titles in this genre. But I do recommend this one. There is a film coming, but no place for Colin (the divine) Firth, Mr Darcy is barely a walk-on part.