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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Pride and Prejudice was only half the story.
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them.
In this irresistibly imagined below stairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants' hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.
Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen's classic - into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars - and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.
'Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.'
They were lucky to get him. That was what Mr B. said, as he folded his newspaper and set it aside. What with the War in Spain, and the press of so many able fellows into the Navy; there was, simply put, a dearth of men.
A dearth of men? Lydia repeated the phrase, anxiously searching her sisters' faces: was this indeed the case? Was England running out of men?
Her father raised his eyes to heaven; Sarah, meanwhile, made big astonished eyes at Mrs Hill: a new servant joining the household! A manservant! Why hadn't she mentioned it before? Mrs Hill, clutching the coffee pot to her bosom, made big eyes back, and shook her head: shhh! I don't know, and don't you dare ask! So Sarah just gave half a nod, clamped her lips shut, and returned her attention to the table, proffering the platter of cold ham: all would come clear in good time, but it did not do to ask. It did not do to speak at all, unless directly addressed. It was best to be deaf as a stone to these conversations, and seem as incapable of forming an opinion on them.
Miss Mary lifted the serving fork and skewered a slice of ham. 'Papa doesn't mean your beaux, Lydia do you, Papa?'
Mr B., leaning out of the way so that Mrs Hill could pour his coffee, said that indeed he did not mean her beaux: Lydia's beaux always seemed to be in more than plentiful supply. But of working men there was a genuine shortage, which is why he had settled with this lad so promptly this with an apologetic glance to Mrs Hill, as she moved around him and went to fill his wife's cup though the quarter day of Michaelmas was not quite yet upon them, it being the more usual occasion for the hiring and dismissal of servants.
'You don't object to this hasty act, I take it, Mrs Hill?'
'Indeed I am very pleased to hear of it, sir, if he be a decent sort of fellow.'
'He is, Mrs Hill; I can assure you of that.'
'Who is he, Papa? Is he from one of the cottages? Do we know the family?'
Mr B. raised his cup before replying. 'He is a fine upstanding young man, of good family. I had an excellent character of him.'
'I, for one, am very glad that we will have a nice young man to drive us about,' said Lydia, 'for when Mr Hill is perched up there on the carriage box it always looks like we have trained a monkey, shaved him here and there and put him in a hat.'
Mrs Hill stepped away from the table, and set the coffee pot down on the buffet.
'Lydia!' Jane and Elizabeth spoke at once.
'What? He does, you know he does. Just like a spider-monkey, like the one Mrs Long's sister brought with her from London.'
Mrs Hill looked down at a willow-pattern dish, empty, though crusted round with egg. The three tiny people still crossed their tiny bridge, and the tiny boat crawled like an earwig across the china sea, and all was calm there, and unchanging, and perfect. She breathed. Miss Lydia meant no harm, she never did. And however heedlessly she expressed herself, she was right: this change was certainly to be welcomed. Mr Hill had become, quite suddenly, old. Last winter had been a worrying time: the long drives, the late nights while the ladies danced or played at cards; he had got deeply cold, and had shivered for hours by the fire on his return, his breath rattling in his chest. The coming winter's balls and parties might have done for him entirely. A nice young man to drive the carriage, and to take up the slack about the house; it could only be to the good.
Mrs Bennet had heard tell, she was now telling her husband and daughters delightedly, of how in the best households they had nothing but manservants waiting on the family and guests, on account of every- one knowing that they cost more in the way of wages, and that there was a high tax to pay on them, because all the fit strong fellows were wanted for the fields and for the war. When it was known that the Bennets now had a smart young man about the place, waiting at table, opening the doors, it would be a thing of great note and marvel in the neighbourhood.
Excerpted from Longbourn by Jo Baker. Copyright © 2013 by Jo Baker. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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If Jane Austen had written Longbourn, she might have begun with a variation of Pride and Prejudice's famous first sentence: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gentlewoman in need of a husband is also in need of a good servant." Pride and Prejudice has been turned into movies, adapted for the stage, and inspired many volumes of fan fiction and spin-off stories. In my humble opinion, none of these complement and expand on Jane Austen's most famous novel, quite like Jo Baker's Longbourn.
Longbourn is the childhood home of Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice's main character. The Bennets are not wealthy enough to afford full-time maids for the women of the house, so the house servants often have to do double duty. In Longbourn, we hear from Sarah, the young housemaid, who washes the clothes, assists in the kitchen, and sets Elizabeth's curls if she's in need of a lady's maid. Sarah envies the five Bennet daughters their leisure time and marvels at their carelessness with shoes and clothes. She tires of the long hours of work, and dares to imagine a different life for herself. As if on cue, James, the new manservant, enters the picture with a dashing demeanor and a heart full of secrets. Sarah's interest in him turns to frustration when she determines that he would rather keep to himself than confide in her. Meanwhile, Sarah also makes acquaintance with a Creole manservant named Tol Bingley who fascinates her with his ideas about his employers and plans to own a tobacco business. Mrs. Smith, the housekeeper at the Bennets, and a mother figure to Sarah, worries that the young woman will fall in love with Tol and leave Longbourn before she understands the value of working for a happy family in a safe, contented place.
Along this storyline, Baker recreates the world of the Bennets' Longbourn in vivid detail, and it is from this perspective that the novel truly shines. Readers interested in knowing how people ate, slept, loved, and celebrated during Jane Austen's time will find ample illustration here. Even if Sarah's daily experience is preoccupied by the Bennets' needs, her independent spirit urges her to conceive of a life beyond theirs. In this way, as she evolves from a naive child to a mature woman, the novel is fully hers. It is interesting to note that despite the class differences, Sarah's story is similar to Elizabeth's: love and marriage offer the only real change a woman can expect in her life.
In addition to the captivating insights about life "below stairs" in the servants' quarters and the excitement of Sarah's character development, Longbourn attempts to fill in a few gaps left by Austen's famous book. Whereas Pride and Prejudice focuses, among other things, on the delicate inner workings of Regency society and the young ladies' experiences with finding husbands, Longbourn provides historical context and details of place for Austen's story. For example, where Pride and Prejudice spends time exploring ballroom conversations, Longbourn describes the ballroom and the amount of work the servants put in to make the ball possible. Where Pride and Prejudice mentions the Napoleonic Wars or colonialism in passing, Longbourn delves in, attempting to understand the bubbling tensions in the upper crust of a society that preoccupies itself with more "civilized" pursuits.
In essence, though the storylines for both Pride and Prejudice and Longbourn unfold concomitantly and many plot points overlap, Baker's intent is not to retell the story of Austen's classic. Pride and Prejudice simply provides a delightful context for Longbourn, which stands well on its own. It soon becomes obvious that Pride and Prejudice and Longbourn create a delightfully unified whole. It is possible to read one without the other, but reading them together provides a broad and nuanced view of early 19th century England - and takes readers into the lives of some of literature's most beloved characters.
Reviewed by Sarah Sacha Dollacker
Rated of 5
by Leslie D.
Truly original Austen take
The list of homages and continuations of Austen novels seems endless, but Baker's new novel centered around the servants of the Bennet household (Pride & Prejudice) is truly new and original. Even more, it's audacious in its interpretation of a couple of the main characters of Austen's novel while wholly realistic in its depiction of life "downstairs." The author has carefully matched scenes in P&P where servants were in view to her own story, fleshing out the lives of these shadowy characters. It's earthy in parts--and needs to be--to show the way life was like, which is in counterpoint to Austen's ironic look at the social strictures of the gentry and upper classes. Great for discussion especially paired with Pride and Prejudice. I don't know what readers who had not read (or seen) P&P would make of it, however an engrossing plot and interesting characters move readers along. Small quibble--a couple word choices seemed anachronistic.
In Longbourn, the housemaid Sarah's frustration with the laundry would have been shared by anyone who cleaned clothes during the early 19th century. Our modern process of sorting, dumping into a machine, pouring in soap, and pressing a button is an embarrasingly wonderful diminution of this once complicated and time-intensive process.
Doing the laundry during this period was such a daunting task that even mistresses of households that employed servants often pitched in. The wealthier families were able to employ servants who, like Sarah, focused mainly on laundry duties. For most families without dedicated laundresses, two days a week were set aside for doing laundry. Washing, boiling, and rinsing a standard load of laundry required around 50 gallons of water, which had to be hauled from a convenient water source.
Because cleaning laundry was so laborious a process, most people washed their undergarments only once a week. Women generally wore a simple sheath made from muslin or linen under their dresses to keep the dirt of daily wear from getting to their outer dresses. A dress made from wool or silk - fabrics that many of us choose to dry clean today - posed challenges during laundry time. Colors could run or fade. Fabrics could stretch or shrink. If a dress were particularly fine, laundry women would deconstruct the garment - removing buttons and trimming, picking the seams to remove the lining from the actual dress - wash each piece separately, dry, and then re-sew, correcting for any shrinkage or stretching as they stitched.
Pinafores, undergarments, and other items made from more robust fabrics, like linen or muslin, were usually left to soak in a tub of warm water overnight before cleaning commenced. Some laundry guides in this period suggested urine be added to the soak. Urine is high in ammonia, a common cleaning agent in modern soaps, and was reputed to be very effective in removing tough stains. The next morning, each item was scrubbed on a washboard with lye soap to remove stains. Lye is very good at dissolving stains but is very hard on the hands (and it would be another 150 years before rubber gloves were available for household use). Today, lye is rarely to be found in washing soaps but is usually the main ingredient in oven cleaners and products to unclog drains. Next, the clothes were placed in vats of boiling water and stirred repeatedly to keep the fabrics from developing yellow spots. Then, bluing - an agent that can still be purchased today - was added. Whites tend to go yellowish-grey with use, so adding a hint of blue (yellow's complementary color) counters this giving the appearance of whiter whites. Finally, the clothes were rinsed one more time, and hung to dry which, in the case of large houses, would have been either outside or in heated drying rooms.
These methods for cleaning clothes were followed for centuries until the mid-19th century when hand-crank devices attached to drums were patented. Though these helped to shorten the process, they still required a lot of labor. Electric washing machines started to appear in the early 20th century. By 1940, six out of every ten homes in the USA that had electricity had an electric washing machine.
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