Longbourn by Jo Baker
I recently finished reading Longbourn by Jo Baker which I enjoyed very much.
The concept of this book is to look at the story of Pride and Prejudice as told by Jane Austen but through a different lens. The novel focuses on the servants story and as such, although there are little glimpses of the original classic, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice remains very much in the background. I enjoyed that this is a different story that doesn’t try to mimic Austen’s style of writing as I find that retellings of sequels which attempt to mimic another author’s voice are very rarely successful. Particularly if they are mimicking one of your favourite authors – it just becomes too easy to criticise.
Longbourn focuses particularly on one servant, Sarah, and shows the lifestyle that a servant in such a household could expect. The other characters below stairs are the Housekeeper, Mrs Hill and her husband Mr Hill, the Butler. Polly is the other servant, only young and brought to the household an orphan. They are joined by a young man called James – the footman, and source of mystery and attention for Sarah.
The book gets off to a fantastic start as washday is underway. Certainly the lives of the servants was no cup of tea. Early mornings, fetching and carrying, lugging heavy buckets of water. Scrubbing filthy petticoats (which gives a different view to the romanticism of Lizzie traipsing through the muddy fields to see her sister, it’s amazing how you can be so casual about such things when you won’t have a hand in putting them back to rights) and generally working incredibly long hours for very little reward not to mention the precarious and unstable lives they live at the whim of their lords and masters. On top of this it serves to highlight the stark contrast that the pure chance of birth results in. At the end of the day the Longbourn estate is not as wealthy as some of the others portrayed in the original classic and as a result the household staff is relatively small and hard worked.
I liked Sarah. She’s certainly not a perfect character but I quite liked that she’s flawed. She’s reaching a certain age where she no longer feels simply satisfied or grateful with her lot in life. Her eye is attracted by the new footman, James, but his secrecy and withdrawn nature repel her original advances and leave her feeling a little bitterly towards him. James, of course, has a reason for his secrecy. Mrs Hill also has her own secrets that must be closely guarded as does Mr Hill. I liked the fact that the ‘downstairs’ staff have as much going on as the upstairs inhabitants (in fact probably more) and that the Bennets are completely oblivious of that. That is of course the other thing that the story highlights very well – it’s as though the ‘downstairs’ staff barely exist. They’re the faceless people who silently keep the household going. After all – you have a washing machine, it does the washing – you don’t really look to closely at it, particularly the internal workings, you don’t give any thought to how hard working it is! Anyway, I did like Sarah – she’s not always the most reasonable character and sometimes you could almost joyfully slap her but in spite of that you can’t help liking her. She works hard, she actually has very little and she’s of a certain age where she’s restless which sometimes makes her oblivious of her own safety or innocence. There is a brewing romance – which turns into a little bit of a love triangle, with the appearance on the scene of the rather handsome Ptolemy, the Bingley’s own footman.
I haven’t read any of Jo Baker’s work prior to this but on the strength of this novel I would certainly pick up more. Her writing is descriptive without being overbearing. She’s clearly researched the era well and her beautiful storytelling combined with the knowledge of the period make the story quite compelling. I could quite happily read similar retellings from the other classical novels.
In terms of criticisms. I don’t really have any strong criticisms. I think perhaps Sarah’s final choice was a little difficult to swallow but I won’t discuss that further for fear of spoilers. I thought the point of the story that focused on James felt as though it was a little bit too lengthy (although in reality it wasn’t actually long at all) it just pulled me out of the story a little although I can appreciate why the author included it. There are also certain ‘liberties’, if you will, taken with some of the characters from the original story, but, I think this is carried out in a realistic way – it could have happened after all! But, it may be that you might not like the light that some of the characters are shown in.
If you’re going to pick this story up expecting to once again be transported to the world of Lizzie, Jane and Lydia then you may of course be disappointed. That world is simply being used as a stage from which to set this story. The focus is different. The storytelling voice is different. And the lives of the main characters are completely different. Yes, it was a pleasure to return to Longbourn and it was a welcome surprise to find such a good story from the other inhabitants.
I would describe Pride and Prejudice as the chick lit of the era. Now I realise that that is probably going to bring down a rain of criticism upon my head but nonetheless I stand firm. It’s basically a story about a bunch of females choosing bonnets and dresses, going to assembly balls and trying to catch the eye of potential husbands, giggling over the militia and arguing with each other! Chick lit. But, told in the lovely voice of Austen and written in a different period that now lends it a certain charm. Longbourn is told by a modern author and looks at other issues not tackled by P&P. I wouldn’t say it’s trying to be overtly controversial or that it’s trying to focus too hard on certain issues but it does take a look, albeit briefly, at certain issues from the time such as a slavery, plantations, the way that people of the era made their fortunes in sugar, there are also slight sexual references and the inclusion of war and fighting. Now, it might be that you don’t like the inclusion of these elements but they happened, they’re pertinent and they play a part in this novel. At the end of the day a book that focuses on the downstairs staff isn’t going to focus on the same issues as those of the gentry. Sarah’s main focus is hardly likely to be about what colour of roses she wears on her dancing shoes or what the next muslim or hair fashion looks like. She wears handmedown dresses and her hair is hidden under a mob cap! So, this is a modern story about a certain historical period that reflects the issues of the time.
Basically this isn’t Pride and Prejudice and isn’t pretending to be but it is an interesting, well written and compelling novel. It was good to go back to Longbourn and I would definitely recommend this novel without hesitation. I would love to similarly revisit Mansfield Park and Northanger Abby. If you like a good historical novel that briefly brings back to life some of the characters from the classics then give this a whirl. I really don’t think it will disappoint.