Skirts Weighty With Water

“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.

20 thoughts on “Skirts Weighty With Water

    • There definitely were too many sometimes to look up, so I just went along with the flow and the feeling of it.
      But I know what you mean. Happy Monday to you too!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The striving to be accepted and to be self-accepted is too often attached to social status; the content of character relegated to an after thought. It makes for good drama, but it’s a sub-par standard of living. Sarah can never be fully accepted into the “country club” because she knows the truth: we–all of us humans–are frighteningly similar. Hopefully, she doesn’t want the “country club”. Maybe she just wants the house…and the pool…and the car…Ha! BTW…I know the setting is 19th Century. Ha!
    Great post, Stacey.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Pam. Oh, yeah, Sarah just wants her own little plot of land, her guy, her baby. Simple things, but obviously not everyone gets those things. And she is wise enough to not want into the club. She just wants out of having to clean the club’s stinky things!

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  2. I gather it’s a new take on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, from the point of view of the servants, where things were not as rosy, but more about keeping the house on working order from the point of view of the servants.
    You will be surprised but where I am from, that life it’s not too far removed, I grew up with a Nanny very dear to me, who at a young age (16) she was the Nanny of my father, and my aunts, the poor thing never had a life of herself, and never married, and she took care of us and helped Mother along since the first days she arrived home, her mother, and sister already death, she was left alone on her mid-fifties, so Father brought her home, I still remember the first day she arrived home, I couldn’t not be more than three years old.
    Mother had a Nanny for each of us, young girls who did not last long to help her, but Mama Pachita did, she had nowhere else to go, or help her, so she lived within my family to the ripe age of 94, she was born in 1900.
    I hold dear memories of her, even if her favorite was my youngest brother.
    Both, Her, and Mother alerted me on dreams about their oncoming death, but that’s another story.
    Nice review Stacey. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, B.H. When I stumble on a book that feels like eating something delicious, like a meal, of course I just want it to go on and on. A book about servants? people may ask. How boring! But the way that it was presented was fascinating and gorgeous.
      Your nanny sounds like a much loved member of the family, and that she loved you all too. How could you not, after all that time? Maybe she battled between being grateful to have somewhere to be and to even be treated well and loved and any of her own “dreams” that she may have had, but maybe after a while the pros of stability and family outweigh the things out of our reach that maybe weren’t meant to be in that life….

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  3. About romance, I don’t know things are happening, but can’t tell how things may end, I met someone who thought it will be promising, but things are stuck so far, going no where, she got mad with me at the beginning of the pandemic, for a trifle, and we just start to talk again, but she seems more, how should I say?
    Cautious..? 🤷‍♂️

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ah! I see! Well, there’s still potential… something brewing…..
    Thank you for the update. Keep us (me) posted, if you remember/want to! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Had to look it up. Not sure we have any lobe’s in the local vicinity but when the cinema’s/theatre open back up I’d love to be sat in one taking in a show.
    Love the old words for things.
    I’m not really into the Austen etc stuff (well Austin Powers yeah baby)
    Mrs Wolf though loves all things Austen family. And Mr Darcy.
    Mr Darcy (Colin Filth) has been causing a stir at my daughters Uni where his son is studying. Her Mum and probably countless middle age Mum’s have asked to be informed when he’s next on campus so she can jump in the car and race the 2 hour journey to accidentally bump into him and go. “OOOOH Mister Darcy!”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ooh, that’s so cool! I think hubby and I would BOTH race in the car to see Mr. Firth too, but for different reasons. We’re enamored and wowed by the long fighting scene in Kingsmen that he does in the church. I mean, he was over 50 when he filmed that, I think! And he did admit to being sore for days and days afterwards, lol.
    I’m not into the Austen stuff either. Just too stuffy for me. But this one moved outside that stuffiness into the day-to-day. Good chance Mrs. Wolf would enjoy it……………!

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  7. The obscure, semi-retired words in a language hold worlds of delight Stace. When I chat to my dad I deliberately use any anachronistic bits of speech I can muster. He can’t do much of anything anymore but language still enchants him. So I’ll be trying out loge tomorrow!
    Did you find something very British about the novel? Or could it have been set in any culture?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi, Kevin! It sounds very nice how you’re fostering your father’s love of language. He will probably know what loge is without batting an eye.
    As for the book, good question. It was British in that it took place there, of course, due to being based on Austen. But the core idea of it, existential angst and search for purpose, could have been set pretty much anywhere, yes!

    Liked by 1 person

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