Wednesday, 26 August 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 30 - "Longbourn," by Jo Baker

The 18th and 19th Centuries in the British Isles were marked by profound social and economic change. With increasing global trade, there were certainly fortunes to be made, but not without taking risks, and there was no effective welfare state to protect those who made the wrong choices, or who were simply unlucky. Developments in agriculture (crop rotation, the enclosure of common land, the selective breeding of livestock) meant that there were fewer livings to be had on the land: families that had tilled the soil, or herded sheep, for more than a thousand years found themselves without a livelihood. Thousands flocked to the industrial towns of Northern England and Scotland to join the growing ranks of factory workers. As the rich became richer and the poor became poorer, however, a new opportunity arose: domestic service.

Rich people had always had servants, of course, but there were now more rich people in the British Isles than ever before, and, where the rich led, the middle classes followed. Great aristocratic houses such as Chatsworth and Longleat employed armies of male and female servants, but even people of "the middling sort," "gentle-folk" rather than aristocrats or industrialists, might now afford to keep a butler and a housekeeper, a couple of maids and a manservant. There were more subtle changes, as well. It was no longer the butler or steward who commanded the servants of a household, but rather the housekeeper; and she reported not to the man, but to the lady of the house.

"As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise," wrote Isabella Beeton, in her Book of Household Management, "so it is with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow her path."

Housemaids at Byfield, Northamptonshire, late 19th or early 20th Century. Photo: Historic England, BB98106062 (reproduced with permission).

The relationships between families and their servants involved a combination of intimacy and social distance that has few parallels in the modern world, but such relationships dominated people's lives for generations. Between 1750 and 1920, all the women of my mother's family were in service until they left to marry tradesmen (carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, later railwaymen).

We catch glimpses of these relationships in the novels of the time, but only fleetingly, since the servants are always in the background. In her novel, Longbourn, Jo Baker re-imagines Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from the servants' point of view.

The Longbourn household, home to Mr & Mrs Bennett and their five daughters, had only five servants (Pemberley would have been a very different novel): Mr & Mrs Hill, the butler and housekeeper; two maids, Sarah and Polly; and a manservant, James.

Luckington Court, Wiltshire, featured as Longbourn in Andrew Davies's 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Photo: Paul Ashwin (licensed under CCA).

The much grander Lyme Park, Cheshire, featured in the same adaptation as Pemberley, home to Mr Darcy. Photo: Mike Colvin (licensed under CCA).

Jo Baker remains essentially true to Austen's original story, and adopts a similar narrative voice, whilst introducing several twists of her own, but gives us a wholly different perspective.

"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. Washday could not be avoided, but the weekly purification of the household's linen was, nonetheless, a dismal prospect for Sarah. The air was sharp at four thirty in the morning, when she started work. The iron pump-handle was cold, and even with her mitts on, her chilblains flared as she heaved the water up from the underground dark and into her waiting pail. A long day to be got through, and this just the very start of it."

"Mr Collins must, of course, be made to see how entirely necessary the current servantry were to the future enjoyment of his inheritance: he could, if he chose to, dismiss them all with a snap of the fingers once Mr Bennett was dead, and this secure little arrangement would be peeled into its separate parts and flung to the four winds. Poor Mr Hill would die of it, that much was certain. Little Polly would fall foul of something or someone, being far too young and far too daft to fend for herself, and Sarah was simply too trusting to be out alone in the world."

Lydia showing her ring to Mrs Hill and the housemaids. C.E. Brock, 1895 (image is in the Public Domain).

"Sarah did not know what she had expected, but clearly she had expected something, or her chest would not feel as hollow and grey as it now did ... 'When you write next to Miss Lydia, miss,' she asked Elizabeth, 'would you mind asking her, if it is not too much trouble, if there is any news of Mr Smith at Brighton?' ... Elizabeth frowned, half shook her head. 'I'm sorry. Of whom?' ... Elizabeth's expression cleared. 'Oh! Smith! You mean the footman! ... You called him Mr Smith, that's why I misunderstood you ... Well then, I shall mention it as you ask ... but I fear her thoughts are so occupied with officers that it will be unlikely she would spare much notice for a footman.'"

Scene from Joe Wright's 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, in which the town of Stamford, Lincolnshire, featured as Meryton, the Hertfordshire town closest to Longbourn. Photo: Nat Bocking (licensed under CCA).

This goes well beyond what is sometimes thought of as "fan-fiction" - taken together, Austen's novel and Baker's give a fuller picture of their time and place than any single novel I can think of.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. Yes, I quite liked "Longbourn". I thought it interesting to see it from the servants' perspective, though I thought that(spoiler) at the end was a bit over the top. :-)

  2. ...I also liked the point made that it was all very well for Miss Elizabeth to go wandering over to Netherfield and get her dress muddy, but someone had to clean it afterwards!

  3. Thanks, Sue! As regards the ending (which I won't give away), there was a particular moment when Mrs Hill has a thought, and I was thinking, huh, how on earth could that possibly work? By the end, of course, we know how, but I doubt that this was a very regular occurrence in real life.

  4. Interested in the 'other side' of the picture, having grown up 'privileged'. But over the years live-in servants were replaced with cleaners that came every week or fortnight. Always felt my family's attitude to the 'staff' was wrong, but then perhaps I never understood the way things were meant to be. Time to find "Longbourne" and read it.