Then I read Longbourn by Jo Baker. Longbourn, in fact, has two strikes against it as a "serious" work. Not only is it inspired by the story told in Pride & Prejudice, but it is also the tale of the servants at the Bennett house of Longbourn, invariably drawing comparisons to Downton Abbey. Longbourn however easily rises above the costume soap opera of the latter, and uses the former merely as a cornerstone to build an entirely new world. Longbourn is to Pride and Prejudice what A Wide Sargasso Sea is to Jane Eyre. One work of art inspired by another work of art.
Longbourn tells the tale of Sarah, a 16 year old servant for the Bennett family. She works hard, as all household servants do, and tries hard to please Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, but Sarah is not happy. As dangerous as it is for a young female servant, completely at the mercy of her employer, Sarah thinks that perhaps, maybe, there could be a better life for her somewhere. But the world is not built for household servants with dreams. Dreams are for other classes, not hers.
Mrs. Hill has her own troubles. She is trying to keep the house afloat on a shoestring, manage the vicissitudes of her mistress, Mrs. Bennett, keep an eye out for her two female servants to make sure they don't get into trouble of a kind she can't even warn them against, but knows could be their undoing. And just as "the entailment" is such an overwhelming fear of the Bennett daughters, that if their father dies their home will go to a cousin, it is a constant fear of Mrs. Hill as well. For Longbourn is her home, and has been for almost her whole life. New owners mean new servants, and what possible future could she and her aging husband have without work at Longbourn?
The familiar story of Pride & Prejudice wafts in and out of the daily life of the Longbourn servants, an occasional thunderstorm disrupting their attempts to keep things running smoothly. In pouring down rain Sarah is dispatched to Merton to get the girls "shoe roses" for the upcoming ball. Mrs. Hill wears herself out trying to make Mr. Collins' stay as delightful as possible, so he might be pleased to view the staff at Longbourn kindly, but what are the efforts of a spotless and comfortable room or an endless parade of cakes when confronted with Elizabeth's refusal of his hand?
One doesn't want to think badly of any of the Bennett girls, except for Lydia of course, but in reading Longbourn you begin to see how Lydia, of all the girls, might be the most easy for Sarah to deal with. Lydia makes her wants and needs known, her orders clear and makes no pretext of friendship. She doesn't spill her heart out and ask for advice while you're in the midst of gathering up soiled laundry. Through Mrs. Hill one even begins to feel just a little bit kinder towards Mrs. Bennett, truly one of the more awful women in literature. But Hill has served Mrs. Bennett for years, through pregnancy after pregnancy, and through a marriage to a man for which she is simply not suited or suitable. We come to feel Mrs. Bennett's terror and desperation of what on earth to "do" with five daughters who have been raised as ladies, with no skills or abilities except to be charming. What will THEY do, if Mrs. Bennett fails at marrying them off?
There are too some secrets and mysteries at the heart of Longbourn, which keep you turning pages late into the night. And there's love too, for these characters that Jo Baker has created. Longbourn is a weighty story with real characters one grows to care for.