x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Jane Austen first introduced readers to the beloved Bennets of Longbourn in 1813. Two centuries later, Jo Baker is the latest novelist to reimagine her work but this time through the eyes of Sarah, one of the housemaids and, as Mark McGinness finds, love is felt as keenly in scullery as it is in the drawing room

Lydia shows her ring to housemaids in this C E Brock illustration for the 1895 edition of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice. CE Brock
Lydia shows her ring to housemaids in this C E Brock illustration for the 1895 edition of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice. CE Brock

“My dear Jane, make haste and hurry down. He is come – Mr Bingley is come. He is, indeed. Make haste, make haste. Here, Sarah, come to Miss Bennet this moment, and help her on with her gown. Never mind Miss Lizzy’s hair.”

This is the only mention, by name, in Pride and Prejudice of the housemaid who helped make tolerable the life of the Bennets of Longbourn. In taking the name of one of fiction’s most familiar houses and leading the reader downstairs, from drawing room, dining room, dressing room and library to the scullery, the kitchen, the cellar and the stables, Jo Baker has produced a beautifully realised conceit.

Austen scholars (who find no detail too slight to leave unchecked) have estimated that, on £2,000 a year, Mr Bennet could afford as many as eight female and eight male servants (Darcy and Bingley as many as two dozen each).

But when Lydia returns to Longbourn as Mrs George Wickham, we are told “she went after dinner to show her ring and boast of being married, to Mrs Hill and the two housemaids”. And so, in Longbourn, Baker builds her story around these three – Mrs Hill, Sarah, and young Polly, who was christened Mary but had to change her name in deference to the Bennet’s unfortunate middle daughter. Mr Hill is butler/footman, coachman/groom. He has his own secrets, as does his wife; but it is Mrs Hill, not her giddy mistress, who keeps order and control; who makes the house run; who can speak her mind to Mr Bennet and can sooth and sedate Mrs Bennet (with Cordial Balm of Gilead).

The British television series Downton Abbey has reminded us that every upstairs needs a downstairs. Baker’s first experience of grown-up literature was Jane Austen, but as she read and reread the novels, she “began to become aware that if I’d been living at the time, I wouldn’t have got to go to the ball; I would have been stuck at home with the sewing. Just a few generations back, my family [her grandmother and great-aunt] were in service.” Baker was also intrigued to learn from one of Miss Austen’s letters that two sisters who worked for her as seamstresses were called Miss Baker. This affinity, this sympathy for the worker, has inspired her and her steady gaze remains on them. And so the novel opens at Longbourn House at 4.30 on a cold September morning – her chilblained hands cranking the water pump and filling buckets: “There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering. Washday could not be avoided, but the weekly purification of the household’s linen was nonetheless a dismal prospect for Sarah.” We admire Elizabeth for her willingness to cross a field and muddy her petticoats but it is Sarah who has to scrub them clean. Rescued by Mrs Hill from the poorhouse when she was seven, Sarah is spirited and literate, longing for a life beyond Longbourn. In some ways, Sarah and Lizzy are similar, but the chasm of opportunity between the two classes in Regency England is so great that to see any likeness would signal the wildest imagination.

Just as Jane Austen introduced her readers to the hothouse that was Longbourn, Jo Baker brings it back to life through the eyes of Sarah, days before the arrival of Mr Bingley at Netherfield. What is more significant to Sarah is the arrival at Longbourn, at about the same time, of young James Smith, as footman and groom. His brooding presence is just as momentous here as that of the enigmatic Darcy in the original. And to secure that universal device, the love triangle, Baker has Bingley bring with him to Netherfield his father’s West Indian valet, Ptolemy, good-looking, worldly and tremendously self-assured. They are every bit as absorbing as Lizzy, Wickham and Darcy.

While tracking the people and plot that we know so well, Baker has created an ingenious back story to Pride and Prejudice – so ingenious that the reader is glued to the fate of those downstairs. It is true, we know what happens upstairs – the fortunes of Lydia, Lizzy and Jane are legion and Baker sensibly leaves these undisturbed; but her triumph is that what happens to Sarah, to Mrs Hill and to Polly is so all-consuming. Her reader does not pine for the parlour. Another nice twist is that the women in the scullery do not much care what happens to the sisters in the drawing room. They are pleased at their mistresses’ good fortune – there is no fuming resentment or sense of rebellion; just resigned acceptance. When the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh pays her infamous visit to Longbourn (“Mr Collins’s old lady patroness, who peered at your sewing and told you what you were doing wrong.”), Sarah wonders: “Lady Catherine had, for whatever reason, wanted to come here, and so she had just rung a bell, and spoken some words, and everything flowed from this. How many quarters’ pay would Sarah have to save, before she could turn any of her desire into anything at all?”

Baker is not above the odd dig at the gulf between those above and below the salt. Silly, selfish Lydia sits in the kitchen, sipping sugared milk: “You don’t know how lucky you are, Hill. Hidden away all nice and cosy down here.” “If you say so, Miss Lyddie.” “Oh, I do say so! You can do what you like, can’t you, with no one hovering over you and scrutinising you?” This scrutiny is nothing compared to the relentless gaze of the Jane-ite, the adoring hordes of Austen fans, for many of whom any attempt to emulate their goddess is met with displeasure and disdain, especially in this, the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice. In her tribute, Celebrating Pride and Prejudice (Frances Lincoln, 2013), Susannah Fullerton has listed the mutating sequels, retellings and travesties. There was Dorothea Bonavia-Hunt’s creditable Pemberley Shades in 1949 and Emma Tennant’s Pemberley, in 1993, which begins: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a married man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a son and heir.” In 2008, Colleen McCullough published The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, set 20 years after Pride and Prejudice, where Jane has had 12 children and Elizabeth four daughters and a disappointing son, while Mary, the middle sister, decides, “I will journey to see England’s ills, write my book, and pay to have it published.”

Some have taken much greater liberties. Apart from Michelle Pillow’s Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition, there is Eckstut and Ashton’s Pride and Promiscuity, which has Charlotte Lucas dressing in one of Lady Catherine’s gowns to excite Mr Collins. Less obscene but equally audacious is Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), which retains 85 per cent of the original beloved text but, with the remaining 15, makes Lizzy a deadly slayer of the undead who is about to behead Darcy when he distracts her by proposing marriage.

Among this pretentious industry, few, if any, have ventured into the parallel world of the servantry.

In 2011, the grande dame of crime, P D James, produced Death Comes to Pemberley, and while she chose Darcy’s much grander and much-dreamt-of seat, she did rely, from time to time, on the butler, the woodsmen and the housekeeper, Mrs Reynolds, to propel her slightly gothic mystery.

Interestingly, it is Elizabeth’s meeting Mrs Reynolds at Pemberley that inspires one of those Austenian aphorisms, “What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant?” Not much praise is heaped on the servants in Longbourn. So often, throughout the novel, that civil but ever-so-chilly dismissal is delivered: “That will be all for now; thank you, Hill”; “You may go now; thank you, Sarah”.

And so the reader readily descends the stairs: with Mrs Hill and her tray laden with empty cups; with Sarah and her brimming chamber pots; with Polly and a heavy bucket of charred wood and ash.

This might have been the grimmest of tales, full of fatigue and toil. There is certainly hardship, but Longbourn is filled with courage and constancy, loyalty and spark.

Because this is not really a retelling, nor is it a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, it does not have to be measured against this legendary masterpiece. It is downstairs’ complement to upstairs, but in its honesty and insight, its poignancy and pace, Longbourn is as accomplished a romance as its lofty, much-loved mistress.

Mark McGinness is a regular contributor to The National.