The book has been billed as the sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and so the saga of the Bennett family continues. However, the novel, Longbourn, really can stand on its own. It is a story that takes place during the Victorian Age, an era in which the divide between the servant and the master was unbridgeable. The lives of those who lived above stairs and those who lived below were immutably joined, and yet they were completely disconnected from each other’s. While the servants were expected to identify with the lives of their employers, for whom they worked only while they remained in their good graces, those upstairs were not in the least bit interested in the lives of those who dwelled beneath. In so far as their lives were concerned, past or future, other than the present time in which they served their employer’s needs, they did not exist. Servants were moved about like property, which is what they were, for the most part, because although not slaves, they had their particular place in the world, and it was lowly, without prospect of change. If not in the good graces of their employers, females, especially, were lost when discharged, demoted to the state of street beggar or streetwalker. Mrs. Hill’s comment, “that all the servant can do is work”, sums up their lives completely. They were forced to stand by and watch as those upstairs lived the high life, they were forced to show their devotion and appreciation for the little they received, and they were expected to subsume their own desires and dreams and assume those of their employer’s.
Back at Longbourn, the Bennets are still in residence calling the shots, the war is raging and the daughters’ marriage prospects are being worried over, in order to secure their futures. There is no male heir, or is there? As they are being married off, some family secrets are revealed as well as some family humiliations. Romances abound, upstairs and down. Ancestry, hitherto unknown, is exposed. Mrs. Hill, head housekeeper, had a more interesting life than the one, I had imagined. Sarah, a teenaged housemaid, matures and comes into her own, as an individual, finding love in unexpected places. Risks are taken and mistakes are made, above and below the stairs, but those downstairs pay the greater penalties for the same sins.
Although the world of upstairs and downstairs is like separate planets, the residents of Longbourn all had their dreams. The ladies upstairs, teenagers really, are tempted with beautiful clothes and dreams of romance, as are the young girls downstairs. Below stairs, they also toy with those same dreams, even as they are worked to the bone, with practically no hope of any prince carrying them off into the night. The downstairs is viewed as “less than” which although accepted, is very unfair. However, it is the way it was, and there was nothing to be done about it.
The class system was, and still is, a system of inequality. Yet, the servants thought of themselves as professionals, albeit trapped in their lives; they were grateful for the roof over their heads, the food in their bellies and the clothes on their backs. They wanted to be held in the good graces of their employers, behaving as confidents, dressers, maids, hairdressers, seamstresses, or, more or less, completing any odd duty they might be called upon to perform. The arrogant behavior of the upper classes, while sometimes respectful, was always condescending and sometimes demeaning and abominable. They did not view the servants as having the same basic needs as other human beings, such as themselves. They held all the power and had all the respect. The arrogance of the privileged classes over those who were in servitude was really highlighted for the reader. The tale also illustrated the horrors a soldier faced, the madness of war, the guilt and the shame for the senseless murders and atrocities committed, the hunger, the compromises of morality, the abuses of those in charge and the reactions of those threatened. It is also a tender love story between Sarah and James, particularly apt in this Valentine’s season, in which I listened to this book.
The story of Longbourn ends with almost all of the loose ends tied up neatly. Although there were times when the narrative was confusing to me, as the story went back and forth from place to place and time to time, as the author defined the characters, all of their lives eventually intertwined with clarity. The reader of the book was expressive, but sometimes her accent made some words unclear. Some of the characters seemed to be assuming important roles, but then faded away without much explanation. While I do not think this book will ever attain the status of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, it was certainly an entertaining read.
Some discussion questions occurred to me as I finished. Did Mr. Bingley, the footman, ever set off on his own? Did James and Sarah’s life improve?? What became of Mr. and Mrs. Hill? Were marriages of convenience fulfilling? Does he ever inherit anything? Is there a future sequel and will the young 12-year-old housemaid, Polly, be its subject and/or the child of Sarah and James? Will James’s ancestry be further explored?