by Allyson Morin
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
This past read I read a bit of historical fiction, namely Longbourn by Jo Baker. Longbourn tells the story of Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of the servants living in the Bennet household. Our main character is Sarah. We learn that she arrived at the Bennet household at seven years old, following the presumed death or misfortune of her parents and brother. She is a maid about the age of Elizabeth Bennet who develops over the course of the story from a sheltered, childlike young woman to a fully realized adult. It’s a pretty classic coming of age story.
If you’re reading this and thinking–ew, reimagined Jane Austen? I think of this story as existing within the world of the Bennets but the Bennet family and their problems play as minor characters at the very most. We are kept behind the curtain, in the servants quarters, the kitchen, the barn, the hallway eavesdropping at cracked doors, learning of the world around us through visitors to the property or through the grapevine.
There’s also a bit of a love triangle present but what I liked about this story is that the romance is rather secondary. We have time to explore deeply who this character is and what she wants rather than being derailed by the man she meets in the first act. I put romance books down the moment the heroine casts off any sort of goal or intention in favor of a guy. It’s not the bad message, necessarily, but rather the predictability of the thing. You know they meet early on in the story, have a period of not getting along but somehow by force of nature they get together and have a whirlwind romance before a misunderstanding briefly derails their relationship at the end of the second act. The pair gets back together in the end and it’s all happily ever after. It’s a predictable storyline and just plain bad characterization if its explicitly stated your heroine aspires to be and is working toward becoming an astronaut but we never see her develop or satisfy this arc. We just see her getting busy being satisfied in different ways. (Was that too saucy? Sorry).
My point is, this book isn’t like that, though it would be easy to under the umbrella of historical fiction.
I won’t give any spoilers, but points that took this book from good to great to me are as follows:
This book is rich in interesting details that vividly create a mental image of white linen billowing on a clothesline in the morning fog of the English countryside. We enter the novel on laundry day. We toil alongside Sarah, Polly and Mrs. Hill struggling to lug massive quantities of soiled linens. We also learn that period stained rags and petticoats are boiled last in a copper drum. That detail was wonderful. Not only did it felt real but it made the five Bennet daughters feel real as well. Later on in the story, we see Sarah scrubbing at Elizabeth’s skirt after Elizabeth’s famous three-mile walk to Netherfield to tend to ailing Jane.
Other great details: Servants use tea leaves to wash the floors and give the room a nice smell. The servants wear hand-me-downs from the Bennet family and always look a little old-fashioned. We see the food both the Bennets and the servants eat and how it is all prepared–the pomp and circumstance behind one evening meal. I love things like that.
Overall, this book is great. Not a very challenging read, I kept it in my purse and read it while I waited in my car or had a moment to myself while out and about. I imagine this book best suited for someone who did well in high school English classes and secretly loved the reading lists put forth by the teachers while everyone else complained. This person knows where their library card is. This person also likely either has a cat or follows kitten rescue accounts on Instagram. At one point in their life, they’ve visited a historical reenactment–either a faux village or a series of booths–and they found themselves most enamored with the shoemaker or the blacksmith. Their preferred shampoo or soap scent is an inoffensive “Shower Fresh” or “Waterfall”. If this at all fits you, I’d recommend checking Longbourn out.
I wrote this book review for my new site, Tandem Books I started with my friend Eli. Check it out!