- - Thursday, October 24, 2013

LONGBOURN
By Jo Baker
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 352 pages

You could fill a bookcase with prequels, sequels and other reworkings of Jane Austen’s novels. If you added unfinished works such as “The Watsons” and “Sanditon” that have been kitted out with endings, and the unlikely mysteries such as Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen series and P.D. James‘ “Death Comes to Pemberley,” your shelves would have far, far more Jane Austen novels than the six she published. None of them would be anywhere near as good as Austen’s work, of course, and some of them, not least “Death Comes to Pemberley,” would be very poor indeed.

This is not the case with “Longbourn.” Jo Baker’s interesting novel focuses on the downstairs life at Longbourn, the house where the Bennets of “Pride and Prejudice” live. The author makes no attempt to imitate Austen’s style, and pays relatively little attention to Austen’s major characters: Elizabeth Bennet, her sister Jane, and Darcy and Bingley, whom they eventually marry. On the other hand, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are fleshed out, while serious attention falls on the servants: especially Sarah and Polly, the two teenaged maids, and a new servant, James Smith, recently hired by Mr. Bennet — much to Mrs. Bennet’s delight. Having a man wait on guests is posher than just having a mere maid.

James shifts mountains of work, including serving meals, caring for the horses, driving the Bennet girls back and forth, and voluntarily helping Sarah. She starts her day at dawn pumping water for the kitchen, the laundry and the family’s washbasins and ends it late at night after emptying chamber pots, washing clothes, cleaning the floors, running errands, helping in the kitchen, cleaning boots, mending dresses, fixing hairdos, lacing stays and fastening many buttoned gowns. It’s because the servants work nonstop that Mrs. Bennet can tell Mr. Collins that the family is “very well able to keep a good cook … her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen.” It’s because Sarah and Polly spend hours at the laundry tubs, their hands red and chilblained from scrubbing the family’s underwear and linens, that the Bingley sisters’ aspersions on her behavior are the only censure when Elizabeth gets three inches of mud on her petticoats while walking to Netherfield.

With constant work occupying the servants’ lives, the Bennets’ doings are minor — but their lack of a son is not. Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, fears that when Mr. Collins inherits the house, he will bring his own staff, putting them all out of a job. His marriage to Charlotte Lucas, who knows and appreciates the Longbourn servants, is thus a blessing downstairs, while upstairs Mrs. Bennet thinks it’s a disaster. Similarly, Wickham’s marriage to Lydia, a serious evil to the Bennets, takes his lascivious eye off Polly, the little maid whose life would be ruined if she took the bait of his penny and half-penny tips.

Jo Baker’s thoroughly researched description of the servants’ toil expands the tiny piece of ivory that Jane Austen worked on by showing how the lives of the middle and upper classes depended on work that’s now hard to imagine. Running water, washing machines and indoor plumbing never looked so good. Ms. Baker also adds a back story of James‘ life as a soldier in the Peninsula War — a response to critics who have complained that though “Pride and Prejudice” was written during the Napoleonic wars, Austen paid them scant heed.

Equally, or more significantly, perhaps, “Longbourn” invites questions about why “Pride and Prejudice” exerts such a force field, generating frequent new incarnations from writers and filmmakers. One answer is that Austen describes Elizabeth with affection, letting her sparkle as a charming, intelligent, attractive and sensitive young woman. Yet she also gives her real problems: lack of money and embarrassing relatives. The combination of charms and difficulties open the door to the imagination. This is true also for Emma Woodhouse in “Emma” and to some extent for Anne Eliot of “Persuasion.” No surprise, then, that these three Austen novels have been a well of inspiration for other writers.

Charlotte Bronte, though she despised the lack of passion in Jane Austen’s fiction, nonetheless produced a novel — “Jane Eyre” — whose characters have invited similar treatments. Among these, Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea” (1966) changed the way critics look at “Jane Eyre” by showing its events from the point of view of Mr. Rochester’s sidelined wife. It’s unlikely that “Longbourn” will have the same radical effect on “Pride and Prejudice,” though it could suggest that readers whose imaginations have gently rambled the Bennets’ world might take a more strenuous approach. Certainly, of the many literary rethinkings of Austen’s work, “Longbourn” is one of the most engaging and rewarding.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.