Oh how we love to celebrate an anniversary, it can’t have escaped anyone who reads, that it’s 200 years since Pride and Prejudice was published and the Janeites* are in seventh heaven, not only because of this milestone but it was recently announced that in 2017 their heroine will be the face of the next £10 note replacing Charles Darwin. We have been bombarded with all things in celebration of Austen but in my humble opinion this lovely sensitive novel surely has to be the finest tribute to her legacy.
Am I the only person to be ever so slightly irritated by the sainted Elizabeth Bennet…well, my prayers are answered because in Sarah the housemaid we have a true and honest view of the drudgery of life as a servant in a Georgian country house. Sarah and Elizabeth have two things in common, intelligence and loyalty but it’s how they apply these attributes to their lives that serve as the basis for the background to the servants story. Mrs. Hill the housekeeper rules “below stairs” with a rod of iron but she has a fascinating relationship with the Bennet family which really does give weight to the adage that the heart of a house is in the kitchen. Sarah and Polly (the younger maid) work from dawn till dusk but support each other and have an almost loving, sisterly relationship, which contrasts heavily with the sisters upstairs who as we know, tend to not be quite as loving!
All their lives are about to change when a stranger called James Smith arrives at Longbourn and is employed as a footman, he becomes the catalyst that changes Sarah’s life. This is where Baker has excelled in writing a true love story without sentimentality but somehow manages to be a credible description of a deep and lasting relationship between two people who should be together. There are many more layers and secrets to be exposed and yes Darcy and Mr. Wickham are all part of the narrative but the character that grabs the heart is Sarah. I would spend time with her rather than the sainted Elizabeth.
If you have never read Pride and Prejudice then don’t let that prevent you from reading Longbourn because in contemporary parlance, it’s a “stand alone” and your enjoyment of this special and beautifully written novel deserves to be read on its own merit.