Updated: Sep 26, 2021
Nelly Dean: a Return to Wuthering Heights- Alison Case
Longbourn- Jo Baker
I read these two books pretty close together last year by chance. They'd both been on my radar since they came out, even though I don't usually like books that are re-tellings of favorite novels or sequels or continuations. Longbourn, I read about alot when it came out, and the reviews were so good that I decided to give it a chance. Nelly Dean is one that I happened on in a library.
In some ways, they are very similar. First, a couple of summaries.
Any Austen fan will recognize the name Longbourn; it's the name of the Bennet family's home in Pride and Prejudice. This is a story from the same time frame, mostly, from the viewpoint of a young maid, Sarah, to the Bennet family. She has the same limited prospects and financial instability as the Bennet sisters, but with crushing work instead of husband-hunting. Sarah lives downstairs to the Bennets with a young girl named Polly, and Mr. and Mrs. Hill. The action starts when a new manservant is introduced to the family, upsetting Sarah and Mrs. Hill.
If this sounds like a Downton Abbey knock-off, it isn't. Sarah's story is unique, she's an interesting character, and the historical details are never didactic or showy. It's a good story on its own. It's weird to see the Bennets and their acquaintances through other eyes.
Nelly Dean is the re-telling of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights by the character of the same name. To tell the truth, even though I've read WH a couple of times, I couldn't place the character, but she is the housekeeper. I think that she narrates a good deal of the story through letters. It's another book with a domestic servant telling her version of things, with the main characters of the source book showing up as secondary characters.
Nelly Dean grew up with the Earnshaw family, gradually taking on more duties until she's less of a friend than a servant. As the Earnshaws fall apart, her relationship to each family member alters, as does her status. This story is as much about Cathy's brother Hindley and his son as Cathy and Heathcliff.
I was glued to both of these books while reading and didn't see how similar they are until later. Both were centered around young women who worked as domestic servants. Both were based on beloved novels by women writers. Both books use the original books as frameworks but go beyond them.
In other ways, Longbourn and Nelly Dean are as different as their source material. Different time periods, different styles of writing, different circumstances in many ways for the main characters, and different time frames. Longbourn covers a couple of years, but Nelly Dean covers decades.
In Longbourn, the new manservant was in the army in the Napoleonic wars, and there are some passages that are hard to read about his time in the army. It's a bit sad to read about Sarah working so hard while the Bennet girls are upstairs deciding what to wear to a ball, but overall, it isn't a depressing book. Nelly Dean has a more personal tragedy; as in WH, the Earnshaws just kind of move her around and she doesn't have much say in it. She watches the family she cares about falling apart. Heathcliff does his Heathcliff thing and she can't do anything to stop him. But it isn't depressing either. A bit heavy, but so good that I just flew through it.
It's been a long time since I've been able to watch a costume drama without watching for servants in the background and wondering how hard their work is, and I've read other historic fiction, kids' books, that kind of preach about how hard things used to be. But both of these books look at the whole person: Sarah and Nelly have their likes and dislikes, fears and dreams, good days and bad. They have people in the house that they like more than others. It isn't as much about the interaction with their employers as Downton Abbey is. It isn't about how the servants and the household make a little community, but about Sarah and Nelly outside of all those restrictions and expectations, and how they find a way to live in and around all that.
(BTW, I'm not really knocking Downton, but I liked each season less than the one before it. I think it started out strong but I got bored with it.)
There are probably a million reading lists that have these books paired, but it was a serendipitous connection for me. I checked them out a few months apart and didn't start comparing them until I was finished with them. Both books are the kind that stick with you. I still think about both of them at random times when some little thing reminds me of them. I highly recommend both.