Over the past month I have, as always, read many books. Some for research, some to review, some entirely for fun. One book I picked up out of curiosity on the strength of a review elsewhere was Jo Baker’s Longbourn. Because I’m a fan of all kinds of media interpretations and re-imaginings of Pride and Prejudice, because I’ve been to Chawton — both the big house with its Library of Women’s Writing and the Jane Austen’s House Museum — and tried to picture what life in the village was like in Jane Austen’s time, and because I’m fascinated by those who may have been given a raw deal in their own time and by history: the servants. Any one of these reasons might have been enough to make me pick up a book, but a rewrite of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the Bennetts’ servants was pretty much irresistible.
The utterly delightful thing about this story is how insignificant some of the events in the lives of the Bennetts are to their servants and how much more important are those details to which the Bennetts pay little attention. All that gadding about in the fields that Elizabeth does makes more work for Sarah the housemaid on washing day, and the rain that blights the week leading up to the Netherfield Ball means that Sarah has to walk all the way to Meryton and back, getting soaked through both times. And if the Bennett girls aren’t happy with the only shoe roses that she can find, then they’ll have to lump it.
Sarah is one of only two servants mentioned by name in the original story — the other being Mrs Hill the cook-housekeeper — but careful book archaeology reveals that the Bennetts have a total of five servants, to all of whom Baker ascribes names, personalities, and motivations in the course of her novel. And, of course, since Mrs Bennett is so keen to tell Mr Collins that none of her daughters have anything to do with food preparation and the like, there’s a lot to be done by five servants looking after a household of seven people plus themselves.
Meanwhile, if you ever wondered what the militia got up to when not attending balls or eloping with Lydia Bennett, this book has some of the answers, building on throwaway references by the Bennetts, such as the one about the private who was flogged, as openings into the background of James the footman. The abolitionists get a mention, too: James reads anti-slavery literature to Sarah, and Ptolomy Bingley is a footman at Netherfield who was born on one of their plantations. His name is somewhat of a revelation to Sarah — she’s used to employers changing the forenames of their servants (Polly the other housemaid is really a Mary, but that would be confusing) but had never considered that one of the consequences of being a slave is to be given your owner’s surname even if they later make you a freeman.
Longbourn is a very British book, and not just because of how much weather features in it, but it’s also a book that deserves to be read widely beyond these shores. Likewise, a wine that is well worth meeting at the end of its journey is the Little Penguin Chardonnay. This cheery wine with distinct hints of pineapple hails from the southeastern coast of Australia and is one of a family of wines from which I’m yet to track down every single member. The chardonnay goes well with seafood, poultry, soft cheeses, or a good book.
Sadly, penguins fail to feature in both Pride and Prejudice and Longbourn (maybe that could be the next series of Jane Austen spin-offs), but that’s no reason not to combine Little Penguin wines with a good book. Always drink responsibly — don’t spill beverages on books regardless of whether they happen to be printed on paper or pixels on a screen.