Longbourn by Jo Baker is an unmitigated delight. Sharply detailed, beautifully written, it tells the story of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from a different angle -- this is the story of the servants of the Bennets' house, Longbourn.

I'm normally leery of Jane Austen sequels and re-tellings, but this 2012 novel is actually neither. It butts gently against the events of P&P and occasionally overlaps them, but it's really dealing with all the things that Jane Austen left out. Things like the hard, unforgiving labour of the underclasses; like war, and slavery, and grime, and sex, all the untold stories. But Baker still clearly admires and loves Austen's work, and is respectful to the origin novel, even while giving us a very different, clear-eyed view of our favourite heroine and difficult hero, a view which is not always favourable.

But the centre of this story is emphatically not Lizzy and Darcy; it is the relationship between Sarah, the housemaid, and the footman, James. Their love does not run smoothly, any more than Elizabeth's and Darcy's did, and they have their own share of misunderstandings and reversals. But their pains and trials have much more serious potential consequences than Lizzy's genteel poverty or social humiliation. James and Sarah might face flogging, starvation, the poorhouse, death in a ditch. Baker has done her research, but the novel wears it lightly, and the writing is subtle and completely engaging. The comparison is obvious, but this is so much better than Downton Abbey!

Apparently it's going to be a movie. For once, I can't wait.

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