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352 pages, Hardcover
First published October 8, 2013
Blue coat, black horse: that was Mr. Bingley. The great tall fellow in the green was Mr. Darcy again. They clipped past the orchard, in profile and oblivious to the housemaids: Sarah felt herself fade. She could see the leaves and branches through her hand; the sun shone straight through her skin.
¹While the ladies of the Bennet family spent their time in the leisurely fashion of gentlewomen, in music and sewing and art and dancing and attracting promisingly rich husbands, someone had to run the household, cook endless dinners, do laundry, empty the chamber pots, shovel the pig shit, clean the outhouse, run errands, scrub floors, travel to the village and surrounding estates through the rain and mud — and do anything and everything to allow the cream and crop of gentle society to enjoy their leisurely lives that made Austen’s novels such great escapist reading.
“If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.”This is a story of those “someones“, the characters that were lost in the background of the shiny glossy lives of the rich and mighty in the timelessly alluring Pride and Prejudice. Invisible in the refined society and therefore the original book pages, they are allowed to take center stage here.
“Perhaps that was why they spoke instructions at her from behind an embroidery hoop or over the top of a book: she had scrubbed away their sweat, their stains, their monthly blood; she knew they weren’t as rarefied as angels, and so they just couldn’t look her in the eye.”Unlike Austen’s novel that inspired the book (and upon the familiarity with which the plot of this one hinges), Longbourn lacks the escapist allure of humor and attractiveness. Instead it is serious and often bleak — which makes sense as it is deliberately focused on the unglamorous aspects of life in Austen’s world. (Unglamorous sufficiently to give me enough details about chamber pots and the outhouse and menstrual blood stains to last me for a very long time, really).
“Would she, at some time, have the chance to care for her own things, her own comforts, her own needs, and not just for other people’s? Could she one day have what she wanted, rather than rely on the glow of other people’s happiness to keep her warm?”
“This, she reflected, as she crossed the rainy yard, and strode out to the necessary house, and slopped the pot’s contents down the hole, this was her duty, and she could find no satisfaction in it, and found it strange that anybody might think a person could. She rinsed the pot out at the pump and left it to freshen in the rain. If this was her duty, then she wanted someone else’s.”
“It had been a dreadful miscalculation, she saw that now: that all of them should be unhappy, so that he should not be disgraced.”
One final note: in Pride and Prejudice the footman appears just once in the text, when he delivers a note to Jane (page 31 of Volume One, in my Penguin Classics edition). After that, he is never mentioned again.
The one good thing about today was that it would soon be over.
And yet, Mrs. Hill thought, having been worn threadbare by all those pregnancies and torn by all those confinements, with all those lost teeth and all that shed blood and a loose belly now to lug around
Elizabeth came close now, and grasped Sarah’s hands, still clutching the sewing; the needle pricked Sarah’s skin so that when her mistress came to take up her needlework again, she would see that it was spotted with dark blood.
“But where will you go, Sarah? What can a woman do, all on her own, and unsupported?”
“Work,” Sarah said. “I can always work.”
Girls like her, and men like him—nobody looked askance at a big belly at the altar, nobody cared so long as it was under plain calico or stuff, and not silk.
And then one crisp still day, when Sarah went to lift the pail, she found that it was empty, and when she walked out down to the paddock she saw a row of nappies flapping white on the line, like a ship’s signal flags, an unconditional surrender; James was pegging out the last of them, and when he saw that he was watched, and who watched him, he looked a little sheepish, but finished hanging out the linen squares.
“That’s kind,” she said, coming close.
“Your hands looked sore.”
Sarah could not account for it herself, but her eyes welled up and her nose prickled, and she was obliged to turn away and pick up the basket. They walked side by side back up to the house, and she felt, for those brief moments, a lightness and an ease that she only realized afterwards was simply happiness.