“The iron pump-handle was cold, and even with her mitts on, her chilblains flared as she heaved the water up from the underground dark and into her waiting pail.”
The opening paragraph of Jo Baker’s 2013 “Longbourn,” strikes like a wave, immersing one immediately into the world of 19th century British working-class life.
I miss words. What were chilblains? I had an idea but wasn’t sure. Cold iron. Water pulled up from the underground dark. I was watching an old game show from the ‘50s a while ago and someone said, “Is it a loge?” I had no idea what a loge was. Had to look it up.
I know times change and so does our vocabulary, but even though we don’t use the word “loge” anymore today, doesn’t it seem like those words haven’t been replaced with better words? “Loge” has disappeared, replaced by slang and acronyms. Yeet. GOAT. And a liberal use of the word “like,” like, you know?
But here we have none of that:
The pails hit the ground and bounced…startling the rooks cawing from the beeches.
Swaddled in the old blue pelisse and snaffled drink…Sarah blundered on into the woods.
She opened a drawer and stared down at its contents– jam-cloths, a scalding-dish…
Sarah smiled as she blackleaded the break-fast room grate, on her knees…
Mrs. Collins had held her new dove-grey reticule on her lap, in the hack-chaise: this augered well.
Beside him, the ventsman glugged water, wiped the bottleneck with a filthy palm…
The latest craze in fiction lately seems to be endless offerings of alternative “Pride and Prejudice” retellings. Maybe it’s me, but are Mr. Darcy and the Bennets that fascinating? Though “Longbourn” is technically another one of these retellings, it comes from behind, painting the same scene from a very different angle by focusing on the servants, the cogs in a well-oiled machine that keeps the Longbourn manor house running smoothly, more like a business than a household.
Orphaned Sarah, the main protagonist now of marrying age, fueled perhaps by the cold dark and physically painful morning, alertly focuses an unflattering spotlight on the family, particularly the sisters, when she says:
“The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statutes underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their shifts on the bedchamber floor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking creatures that they really were…She had scrubbed away their sweat, their stains, their monthly blood; she knew they weren’t rarefied as angels.”
In discussing a lady’s monthlies, Jo Baker ventures into territory that Jane Austen was forbidden to even approach, much less enter. But yet, this was obviously the stark reality that buoyed up the unremitting dream of eternally white china, always-crisp linens, and perpetually polished brass fittings. The illusion of effortless order amid back-breaking labor.
Imagine this is your day: the washboard, the chamberpots, the lye, the hog shit, the ewers in the bedchambers, the sweeping, the polishing, the scraping, the blackleading, the chopping, the stitching, skirts weighty with water, the rank smell of old mutton fat…
This fascinating peek at the muscular diligence of varied personalities combining in Transformer-like effort into a solid, dependable entity that performed their duties while enduring emotional and physical suffering is a beautifully written and elucidating journey behind the velvet rope of any manor house at the time, but of Club Bennet in particular.
The novel begins with the quote, “What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant?”
But for Sarah, who at one point obtains her own private space “with a view of elms, a place to sit, a tray set out for her tea…” it’s not enough. In her quest to become more than a servant, to remove herself from that specific box, she chooses to unhitch her intelligence from the will of others and loose it into the wider world of self-determination and autonomy.
The author, Jo Baker, hailing from a lineage that at one time engaged in service, paints the landscape of servitude—travail, loyalty, regret, heartache, dignity and longing–in black and white and all the beautiful colors in between.