“If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields.”

I’m not usually a great fan of sequel-fiction (although who doesn’t love a clever mash-up?), in particular the continuing adventures of Elizabeth and Darcy, 200 years after Jane Austen wrote Pride & Prejudice, can be wearying but when it is well done it can work beautifully, surprising you with a new view of a world you thought you were familiar with.

Jo Baker’s Longbourn (Doubleday) is just such a treasure, the tale of the servants of Longbourn, the house lived in Mr and Mrs Bennet and their five husband-needing daughters. Sarah, one of the two housemaids, is the main character and is appealing, realistic and a rather wonderful creation, a way into Baker’s meticulously researched tale of how people lived, the practical mechanics of everyday life. The descriptions of the labours of washday with the resulting chapped and bleeding hands make you very fond of your own washing machine, and you develop a new fondness too for soap you haven’t had to make yourself with fresh pig fat and lye. The emptying and scrubbing of various chamber pots adds a certain underlying biological earthiness to the servants partial observations of the frills and froth of the various balls, assemblies and courtships the Bennet sisters are engaged in.

Not that the servants haven’t got their own intrigues and busy lives that make their own hearts beat faster. I particularly liked the tale of Mrs Hill, the housekeeper who has her own secrets and connections to the Bennets, and who, as the house will be inherited by the odious Mr Collins (refused so troublesomely by Elizabeth), has her own schemes for maintaining her position once Mr Bennet dies. The book makes very starkly plain how interleaved and co-dependent both served and server’s lives are, and captures the constant underlying anxiety about how one might manage to live, to eat, to be sheltered – hoping for a little comfort in this precarious world is a luxury not to be lightly indulged in.

The absorbing plot, well-realised characters and fascinating historical details lift this novel above the ordinary. It is a good book on its own, and a really imaginative and useful addition to the ongoing Austenphilia.

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