I have always had a weakness for books that take a minor character in a familiar work and create an entire novel around that character’s life. A fantastic example of this is Geraldine Brooks’ “March,” which tells the story of the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” Jo Baker, in her well-reviewed novel “Longbourn,” performs a similarly pleasing feat. She recreates the world of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” by shifting the focus from the Bennet family to the lives of the servants below stairs. Considering both Austen’s enduring appeal for readers and the current Downton Abbey mania, it is no surprise that there is a waiting list for “Longbourn” at your library. Place a hold on this title and then pick up one of the following books to read while you wait.
“Below Stairs” by Margaret Powell
The subtitle of this memoir pretty much says it all: “The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ and ‘Downton Abbey.'” Powell’s frank, sometimes funny and often angry insights into the lives of servants employed by the great houses in 1920s England will make the modern day reader, at the very least, extremely grateful for washing machines and the fact that no one is asking her to iron his boot laces.
“The Dressmaker” by Kate Alcott
Like Baker, Alcott takes a situation we think we know inside and out – the sinking of the Titanic – and makes it new by shining the spotlight into the event’s less explored corners. In this novel, Tess, the titular maid and seamstress whose last-minute hiring by fashion designer Lucile Duff Gordon lands her a place on the doomed ship, takes center stage. The majority of her story happens after the tragedy, with Senate hearings and investigations into the Titanic’s sinking (as well as a bit of romance) highlighting issues of class and politics in the early 1900s.
“The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro’s award-winning novel tells the story of an aging butler who has spent his life in service to Lord Darlington, upholding and believing in a class system that is crumbling around him in post-war England. A compelling look at both the servant’s mindset and a social order that has all but vanished.
“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen
An obvious recommendation, perhaps, is the original work by Austen herself. Whether you need to re-familiarize yourself with the Bennet sisters and their hunt for husbands or will be picking up the novel for the first time, Austen’s book will immerse you in the lives of the upper classes in Regency England.