The secret lives of the Longbourn servants

Most readers are familiar with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. This is the story of the other half of the household at Longbourn, the servants.

Longbourn: Pride and Prejudice: The Servant’s Story

By Jo Baker

$30 Random House Canada

Most readers are familiar with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. This is the story of the other half of the household at Longbourn, the servants.

The life lived in the Bennet household with its five daughters and an anxious mother includes a round of parties and new dresses and the pleasure of being seen at the right places, in the presence of eligible men.

After all, how is a mother to find suitable husbands for five daughters?

Readers of Pride and Prejudice are familiar with the anxiety displayed by Mrs. Bennet. Mr. Bennet, on the other hand, escapes to his library and generally leaves the fussing to his wife.

The people below stairs whose hard labour makes the household run efficiently are often taken for granted.

Old Mr. Hill is general factotum and he drives the carriage on outings.

Mrs. Hill is the cook and overall housekeeper. It is she who prepares the meals, supervises the laundry and trains the young women under her, in housekeeping.

That all sounds pretty easy.

In fact, young Sarah is up at 4:30 a.m. on laundry days, drawing the water to heat, then scrubbing and soaking and scrubbing some more so that the ladies upstairs have white under-things.

The young ladies’ long skirts, which had been dragged through the mud on a fresh-air walk, must be boiled so that no greyness survives.

That is to say nothing of the chambers pots taken out and baths drawn and the fires laid and meals served.

Sarah works very hard and painful chilblains plague her.

Although the young ladies are gracious to Sarah, perhaps they forget that they have no secrets from their personal maid, and she doesn’t have a high opinion of them.

Polly is a young under maid who also works very hard.

There are secrets in the lives below stairs and this author ferrets them out.

While eligible men are the only topic above stairs, below, there are no men servants, apart from Mr. Hill. The Napoleonic War has taken every male of the servant class.

Young men with means are also soldiers but their uniforms and often their ranks are purchased. These are the young men who dress up a party.

But now Mr. Bennet has hired a young man, named James Smith.

The girls and their mother are thrilled, since being driven about by a young man will advance their cause immeasurably; and below stairs they are thrilled that help is on the way.

James turns out to be a capable and willing worker, and interesting to Sarah.

But where did he come from?

James’s history changes everything about the place. The secrets are long buried and are far reaching.

Longbourn has always been a sleepy little place, where lives are lived out in peace. Now soldiers, and house guests of all types, will change the lives of everyone.

This is a highly entertaining book.

Peggy Freeman is a local freelance books reviewer.

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