“No man ever steps in the same river twice,” said Heraclitus — an aphorism alluded to by two characters in Jo Baker’s Longbourn. Neither, however, finishes the quotation: “for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
And what a river Baker has chosen to plunge into: the much-charted depths of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (the novel’s bicentennial is being celebrated this year). Longbourn provides a servants’-eye view of the Bennet household, which is cared for by the aging Mr. and Mrs. Hill; Sarah, a maid-of-all-work entering young womanhood; Polly, the pixyish “scrub”; and James, a hired hand whose arrival creates much of the same drama that Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy bring to the residents upstairs.
From the same stream that fed Austen’s literary imagination, Baker has drawn forth something entirely new and fresh. Nothing about Longbourn feels derivative, although the novel begins with a winking homage to Austen’s style (“There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September.”) Immediately afterward, Baker begins telling the story of Longbourn in her own, lyrical voice: “Mrs. Hill and her husband, up high in their tiny attic, slept the blank sleep of deep fatigue; two floors below, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were a pair of churchyard humps under the counterpane.”
The novel begins on washday; dirty linen, literal and figurative, is a recurring motif. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s heedless tromping through rain-soaked fields seems charming. In Longbourn, we see the effect on Sarah, slaving in the scullery: “The petticoat had been three inches deep in mud when she’d retrieved it from the girls’ bedroom floor and had had a night’s soaking in lye already; the soap was not shifting the mark, but it was biting into her hands, already cracked and chapped and chilblained, making them sting.”
The masterful writing makes the scene meaningful for Austen devotees and the (surely hypothetical) reader who has neither cracked open Pride and Prejudice nor seen any of the film adaptations. Those who are privy to the details of Mr. Darcy’s courtship of Lizzie can savor its downstairs parallel, but Sarah’s story is fully her own. Baker’s characters, like her novel, do not depend on the Bennets for worth or meaning.
As a result, readers who are inspired to delve into Pride and Prejudice for the first time will be amazed that most of Longbourn’s plot points are not in the original novel. And Janeites who know the full text of “it is a truth generally acknowledged” will simply nod and say, “Well, of course. How else would it have been?”
In the final chapter, Baker resumes channeling Austen with this paragraph: “It is not, perhaps, an entirely happy situation after all, to gain something that has been wanted for long years. The object itself, once achieved, is often found not exactly as anticipated.” Many readers will turn the last page of Longbourn and agree that it was not at all as anticipated, but far, far better.
Gigi Lehman is a writer and literature teacher in San Antonio, Texas.