It is a truth universally acknowledged that the market is oversaturated with Jane Austen pastiches. Toss some zombies or a murder mystery into Austen's elegant accounts of the travails of the landed gentry, and you've got something that lots of people will buy, out of embarrassed curiosity if nothing else. I imagine the marketing of Jo Baker's LONGBOURN will target that audience, but those expecting a lighthearted parody or a return to beloved characters will be disappointed. This is less a companion to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE than a distant cousin, one that interacts with its relative rarely and in unrevealing ways. Fortunately, the story it tells is interesting enough in its own right to make a rewarding experience, albeit one that won't surprise readers who have more than a superficial knowledge of the period.
Where PRIDE AND PREJUDICE left the Bennet servants as faceless ciphers, in LONGBOURN they are the central characters. There are Mr and Mrs Hill, butler and cook; teenage maid Polly; and the heroine, Sarah. To this small, thinly-stretched team is added James Smith, the new footman. At first Sarah is suspicious of James, whose arrival in the household was the subject of a mysterious argument between Mrs Hill and Mr Bennet. As suspicion hardens into dislike, Sarah finds herself drawn toward the charming footman at neighboring Netherfield, who is also the first black man Sarah has ever seen. As she learns more about these two strange and fascinating arrivals, Sarah takes steps that will change her life forever.
The true subject of LONGBOURN is not, however, Sarah's romantic life, which mirrors Elizabeth's from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and is equally predictable. Baker is concerned instead with the life of the lower classes in Regency England, the deprivation and suffering that produced the gilded world through which Austen's characters moved. This is a worthy topic, though not a new one; attempts to give servants equal time in period pieces go back at least as far as the 1970s TV series UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS. But Austen's novels, with their glittering surfaces and unexpressed but forceful themes beneath, are ideal for that purpose, and Baker does a more than satisfactory job of it. At times she emphasizes the parallels between masters and servants too plainly; I got rather tired of reading descriptions of the Bennets' idle melancholy followed by some variation on "Sarah didn't have the luxury of that." But given how glaring the disparities are, it's hard to describe them at all without sounding unsubtle.
With one brief, charming exception, Baker makes no attempt to imitate Austen's prose, opting instead for a more modern and immediate tone that captures the grim fatalism of the servants' day-to-day existence. Apart from a few instances of distractingly contemporary diction, it works quite well, conjuring for the reader the pain of constant labor, the loneliness of lives confined to a radius of a few miles, and the small pleasures that are all servants can hope for. A late section in which one character's backstory moves the scene away from the English countryside is especially intense; Baker has a real gift for spare, bleak descriptions of physical and emotional devastation.
As noted, lovers of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE won't find much new here, though minor characters like Mr Collins and Mary Bennet are shown in a more sympathetic light, and George Wickham manages to be even worse. There is one major twist to a key character late in the narrative. I can't describe it without spoilers, but I don't think it really works, either in terms of the characters as Austen presented them or as drama in its own right. It has the stink of class-conflict melodrama, which the novel has otherwise avoided. But Baker handles this element as well as it can be handled, and the overall resolution echoes Austen without abandoning LONGBOURN's own distinctive voice. It's surprisingly moving: the characters may not be that complex, but they're human enough to engage our sympathy all the same. This is a fine historical novel, especially recommended to thoughtful readers of Austen and those interested in the darker side of the opulent English past.
on August 22, 2013
At work one morning I got very excited listening to an interview on Australian ABC radio: Jo Baker was being interviewed about her new novel Longbourn. The telling of Pride and Prejudice through the servants eyes. I got very excited and was jumping in my seat (thank goodness it was a quiet day and there was no one there to witness me). I thought to myself: I have to get this book NOW!!!
Pride and Prejudice has always been a favourite story of mine. And I often wonder, daydream and imagine what life was like for Lizzy and Darcy. But I had also wondered what life would have been like for the servants of that household.
I can't imagine dealing with Mrs Bennett on a daily basis, both publicly and intimately (shudder at the thought) being a simple, easy task to undertake.
I was sucked-into Jo Baker's story within the first minute of starting the book. Immediately I liked and cared for the servants and I felt for them as they got along and completed their daily tasks(that turn my stomach and make me thankful that I live in this century!).
I found myself crossing my fingers and holding my breath that servant and gentry alike got to live Happily Ever After.
Jo Baker showed respect and attention to detail in incorporating her voice and imagination into the back-story of Jane Austen's masterpiece.
I have not read any other works by Jo Baker yet, but I intend to now asap.
on August 18, 2013
I've read a number of Pride & Prejudice derivatives. I have praised Pamela Aiden's 'Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman' and Jan Hahn's 'An Arranged Marriage'. 'Longbourn' is my new pick of the litter. Let me quote briefly from Jo Baker's Author's Note at the end of the Kindle edition. "The main characters in Longbourn are ghostly presences in Pride and Prejudic. They exist to serve the family and the story." In 'Longbourn', the main characters of Pride and Prejudice may not be ghostly, but most are bit players. Powerful bit players, too be sure; but not central to the story. The downstairs story and characters Baker has created certainly held my attention and made me care about them. This is not Upstairs/Downstairs, Gosford Park, or Downton Abbey. A hundred years before the setting of those stories, life is grittier. The Longbourn estate is a small one and the household staff only numbers only five. The work is hard; and the days are very long. Baker has done her homework. Bravo!
on November 26, 2013
First, let me confess my own prejudice: I'm opposed to the current tidal wave of books that rejigger beloved texts.
From "March" (based on "Little Women" from the POV of the father) to "The Wide Sargasso Sea" (based on "Jane Eyre" from the POV of the mad wife), I'm totally over it. Why? Because I find the authors lazy. They reap benefits they haven't earned, piggybacking on emotions and effects the original author had to sweat to produce. Also, they insert modern attitudes that distort the intentions of the original work. And publishers encourage it because, as with producing the sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster, they can hitch a ride with a proven winner. (BTW, I don't have the same opinion about fan fiction, which to me is based on love, not commerce.)
So you may wonder why, feeling this way, I read "Longbourn." Well, Jane Austen's six books can only be re-read so often. And to its credit, "Longbourn" begins auspiciously. Jo Baker's descriptive powers are exceptional. The reader feels the stiff chapped hands, the dreary cold dawns, the endless, backbreaking drudgery endured by our protagonist Sarah, and by Mrs. Hill and little Polly. There is careful, fascinating detail here about domestic life in the early 19th century. To me, it's the strongest element of the book, and the first third shines because of it.
But for me, the plotting falls apart. Two equally unlikely love interests appear for Sarah, one an ex-slave, the other a mysterious stable boy. Sarah falls predictably in love with one of them, and then loses him due to the evil machinations of the wicked Wickham. The book veers into heart-rending depictions of war in Spain (again, very well-written, yet strangely out of place in this narrative.) Finally, Sarah's behavior has improbably shifted from 19th century submissive to 21st century radical; she acts in ways that would have been unlikely for a working class woman in the 1950s, let alone 1810. By the time the ending rolls around, the characters feel manipulated and off-balance.
By the way, and somewhat ironically, the connection to the narrative of "Pride and Prejudice" is pretty tenuous. It wasn't necessary and I don't know why Jo Baker didn't simply write her own novel from the ground up. Or rather, I do. And as I said before, I'm getting pretty tired of it.
on March 3, 2014
I really wanted to like this book; I thought it was a good idea to tell the story of the Longbourn servants, showing how little their lives and concerns intersected with those of their employers. And there are some really good things in it. Even more than the note that Lizzy Bennet would have been less carefree about getting her petticoats muddy if she had had to scrub the mud out, I liked the point that in holding back the news of Mr Collins' visit till the day of his arrival just to surprise his family, Mr Bennet is quite uncaringly subjecting the servants not merely to a scramble of last-minute work but actual well-founded fear - Mr Collins will be the next owner of Longbourn, and they have only one chance to make a good enough first impression on him that he will keep them on in his employ and not turn them out.
But, some things just won't do. Jo Baker has obviously done loads of research into domestic life of the period and so she must certainly know that she has given the Bennets an impossibly small household of servants. It's canon that Mr Bennet has £2000 a year plus the interest of his wife' fortune; that they don't save any of it; that they keep a carriage and carriage horses plus at least one riding horse, they have a large garden including a fashionable 'wilderness' and they have coverts of game birds. A household of that size, with that kind of income, would have had - would have needed - at least eleven servants: Samuel and Sarah Adams' 'The Complete Servant', published only 12 years after P&P, states that the household of a gentleman with a family and an income of £1,500-£2000 would require 'A Cook, Housekeeper, two House-maids, Kitchen-Maid, and Nursery-Maid, or other female Servant; with a Coachman, Groom, Footman, Gardener, and an assistant in the Garden and Stable'. Instead, at the start of her book Baker has given the Bennets only a cook-housekeeper, two maids and one elderly manservant. That's only one maidservant more than the impoverished Dashwood ladies in Sense & Sensibility needed to run their poky cottage with 'dark narrow stairs, and a kitchen that smoked'! (And in real life, less than Parson Woodford and his spinster niece needed in his Norfolk rectory, where they kept no carriage and sent their laundry to be done by a washerwoman, on his modest stipend of £300 a year.)
This matters, because if you're going to major on 'gritty reality', you simply have to keep it real. Yes, household work in the Regency era was hard and squalid in the extreme; but the below-stairs community of Longbourn wouldn't have been anything like as small and isolated as Baker writes it.
I do have other gripes. I've no objection(as some other reviewers seem to have) to Baker including references to sex such as JA couldn't have dreamed of discussing. However, I found the revelation of Mr Hill's love life unconvincing - not that a Regency servant couldn't have had such a love life, but the way the information was dumped on the reader as 'this is a plot point, take it or leave it' without any attempt to weave it into character. And I don't buy Wickham as a paedophile for a moment. It's canon, after all, that Wickham pursues grown-up girls for fun as well as profit, which real-life paedophiles very rarely do. (Nor, come to that, can I believe that any 12-year-old workhouse-reared Regency housemaid could possibly not have known what it meant when a gentleman told you he'd give you sweets if you 'were sweet to him'.) And Baker read two or three books on the Peninsular War but she simply hadn't made sense of the material, so the whole section dealing with James Smith's misfortunes as a soldier in the war in Spain is lamentable; it's full of errors and impossibilities.
It's very sad, because there was a good idea here, and I think Baker is talented enough as a writer to have made a better fist of it than she did.
on May 13, 2014
I was very excited about Longbourn. Jo Baker is slated to be part of the author showcase at the Jane Austen Festival I will be attending in a couple months, and so I wanted to read her book that I had heard so much about. Based on the description and what I heard, I felt it would give the feeling of Downton-Abbey-Meets-Pride-And-Prejudice. I thought this was a truly great concept as I had noticed the servants in Pride and Prejudice... for instance, the Bingleys' footman awaiting a reply about Jane coming for dinner, and Mrs. Bennet sharing her schemes right in front of him. This was bound to have been reported back to the Bingleys, and it would have been interesting to see that scene written out.
However, Baker does not take the novel in this direction. The novel shows very little interaction between the servants and the original storyline. It would have been very interesting to see the scenes from the servants viewpoints - however, all you really see is complete behind the scenes work. The book made life at Longbourn seem absolutely horrid, and the Bennets unkind. Even Lizzy - everyone's beloved Elizabeth Bennet - is on several occasions portrayed as condescending and uncaring. I do not believe that in such a small household as the Bennets possessed that they would have been unkind, uncaring or condescending to their servants, especially a maid who grew up with them.
The story drags along, and in volume three, is very, very dull. The Bennet's footman, James, is a horrid character. He possesses no appealing qualities and is greatly disappointing in his attentions to Sarah all throughout the book. I was so displeased with the lackluster ending, the portrayal of Darcy and Lizzy, and the completely unnecessary details or side plots. As one other reader wrote, I too did not expect to read about sexual orientation, masturbation, and pedophilia in this book. I also did not expect to be reading about soldiers in the war at great length.
Some of my greatest pet peeves of authors who write Austen spin-offs are their use of language, terms, and ideas that were simply not present at the time, and the lack of consistency among the terms and language as the book goes on. I also don't understand how someone can be enough of a fan to write a spin-off, yet miss or change very key and obvious points of the original. Longbourn contains all of these things.
The only thing I will say that I enjoyed about this book was that it gave me insight into what it was like to live in that time domestically. I've always wondered what they did for bathroom needs, or how they styled their hair the way they did, and random things like that, and you do find out. This was the most interesting part of the book.
I will end my review by saying that I may be an Austen snob, and often find error in any spin-off like most of us Austenites do, but I still am capable of enjoying the spin-offs and understand that no one can be Austen. In fact, I have enjoyed most all of the spin-offs I have read. This book gives such a negative view of Pride and Prejudice that I feel tainted by it and will have a hard time overlooking it to enjoy my favorite book and movie. Honestly, I feel as though the book was written by someone who disliked the Bennets and wanted to give them a negative image.
Read at your own risk of not being able to fully enjoy Pride and Prejudice anymore.
on November 19, 2013
This is the best post-Austen book I've read. It's about the servants that flit in and out of Pride and Prejudice, with the merest cameos by the characters we know. Darcy, in particular, described through the eyes of a young servant girl, is a godlike whirlwind, and not a kindly god.
Somehow Baker makes these servants very "flesh and blood," more "real" than the Bennets we know and love. Indeed, she managed to change my mind about that family by providing backgrounds for the elders and servant viewpoints of the younger. She was particularly astute when it came to Wickham. As he flirts with a very young serving girl, one who hasn't even gotten her "monthlies," it suddenly occurs to the reader that he'd already gotten into trouble by making a play for the still very young Miss Darcy before luring 15 year old Lydia into his clutches. I had never realized that the man is nearly a pedaphile!
The main characters are Sarah, an orphan taken into service as a small child, now about the age of Jane and Elizabeth, and James, a mysterious man suddenly taken on as a footman, who does, I believe, make an appearance in Austen's novel. After much misunderstanding, they fall in love, but Wickham, a villain in whichever novel he lands, manages to pull them apart.
Most interesting to me: one, that the servants led a much less sheltered life than the gentry and that this was actually helpful--to know the ways of animal/human breeding, to know the horrible pains and betrayals of war, to learn to expect nothing. They had a more realistic view of life, in Baker's view, and managed for the most part to be stoic about the hands they were dealt. The second source of interest was the extent of the grime: the "necessary" out back of the house, the backbreaking work it caused the servants when Elizabeth chose to walk through mud, for it was a lot of work to clean and polish boots and to soak skirts and underskirts in boiling water and lye. I felt for the chilblains on Sarah's hands, how they'd burst when she had to use the hot curling iron on the girls' hair, how she'd have to be careful dressing them so that the weeping sores on her hands didn't stain their clothes. The laying of fires, lugging heavy loads of ashes, dealing with menstrual cloths, carrying chamberpots with head turned away, pumping and heating water--it was all so much, and all so foreign to the gentry being served. They seldom thought of the servants, and when reading Austen's novels, neither did we.
When we read Austen, we are pleased for the girls when interesting company arrives. When we read Baker, we moan for the servants whose work will be doubled when, in this money-strapped family, they are already sorely overworked. Sarah, James the footman, Mrs. Hill and her husband, young orphaned Polly--they provide a different and more realistic portrait of life below stairs than we imagined, if we ever gave a thought to the servants.
We HAVE thought of war when reading some of the Austen works, as P & P is crowded with the militia, and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion makes his fortune during the wars. Baker takes us into the war itself, with all the dirt, starvation, death, and horror of actual war. In short, she takes us out of the drawing room; however, in the end, she chooses to explore what most interested Austen: finding and winning one's true love.
on November 6, 2013
I bought "Longbourn" after seeing that several Jane Austen societies had given it a thumbs up. They are notoriously selective in their approval of anything that piggy backs onto Austen's writing, so I took it to be a good sign. The Bennets are one of my favorite fictional families, so I was looking forward to a week immersed in their world by downstairs proxy.
As chapter followed chapter, I felt a slowness - it's not a good sign when you have to tell yourself to give it more time to develop. I eventually realized I was not going to become engaged by the style of writing, and continued to plow through just to see what the author would do. There were beautiful sentences and paragraphs, although too far apart to elevate the book. I also did not expect or want the inclusion of sexual activities, including masturbation, sexual orientation and attempted pedophilia. These were not graphic, but still not my kind of writing.
I believe the major error in "Longbourn" is changing "Pride and Prejudice" individuals in a way not true to their original nature. It's one thing to improve one's understanding of why a not-so-loved character has become the way they are (one of this book's main strengths). It's quite another to soil several beloved individuals in a way that I will have to push out of my mind whenever I read or watch "Pride and Prejudice" in the future. In short, it should not be done.
on January 12, 2014
This book was published with so much advance hype I was really expecting something beyond ordinary. But without the gimmick of being below stairs at P&P, I really think this would have slipped into the bookstream unnoticed, as yet another standard Regency romance. As for any connection to P&P, it's slender and tortured at best. I am not a defender of all things Austen, but even I felt sparkling Elizabeth and her sweet sister Jane were unfairly portrayed as vapid and thoughtless. The book's highpoint is that it paints a well-researched and accurate portrait of the hard toil servants of the day performed, and the lack of choice and personal freedom that was at their disposal. The main characters, like actors in a skimpy play, lack motivation to build on. Sarah's initial dislike of James is as inexplicable as his nearly instant fondness for her.
The main problem with the book is that the plot is too thin to make for a compelling read. There are a few red herrings, but they are so obvious and so quickly resolved that nothing resembling narrative drive takes hold. Not much happens, and the book consists largely of descriptions of landscape, hard work, and glimmers of life upstairs. The first two-thirds of the book were pleasant enough, but took a turn for the worse with the third volume, where a bewhiskered old plot device is trotted out as a revelation and, after that, we flash back to the Napoleonic wars for 35 pages that seem like 100, all to be told explicitly what we have already figured out. This completely killed whatever interest I'd worked up in the characters' fates. After we finally return to the here and now of the story, the book's lack of originality is unavoidable. I wouldn't have bothered to finish it except that by then I was only 60 pages from the end. So, a tolerable read, but nothing that held my attention or won my heart, and utterly devoid of Austen's impressive wit.
on September 11, 2013
"No man is a hero to his valet." In Regency Britain, the household of a gentleman, even one of modest fortune, was supported by a legion of mostly unseen servants. In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, that exquisite plus grand roman of Regency Chick-Lit, Mr. Bennet's modest needs and the rather more extensive ones of his wife and five daughters are met with a meager staff indeed. Mrs. Hill functions as both housekeeper and cook. Housemaids Sarah and Polly - still a child - clean the house, wash the extensive laundry, serve at table, and help in the kitchen. Mr. Hill, who is ailing, is responsible for the horses and the outside work with only the help of an occasional workman. This is a minimal staff for a household with five pretty but poorly-dowered marriageable daughters, all of whom must look their best at all times.
Sarah was hanging laundry trying not to stain it with her chilblains, which the day's scrubbing in lye had opened, when she first spotted the stranger coming up the old drovers' lane. The following morning the servants are introduced to James Smith, hired to help Mr. Hill with the heavy work. Mrs. Bennet is thrilled; she will have a proper coachman and a young footman to serve her guests at table.Mrs. Hill seems oddly ambivalent - Mr. Bennet had hired him without even informing her. Later, Sarah hears raised voices from the study; could Mrs. Hill possibly be arguing with her master? From that moment, Sarah mistrusts James Smith, although she is oddly attracted to him.
Longbourn fits itself nicely around Austen's book, never rewriting or reinterpreting her work, just observing the same events from the very different downstairs perspective. The chronology is the same, with a passage from Austen's book at the beginning of each chapter to set up the action downstairs. The charming daughters of Pride and Prejudice, seen from downstairs, come off as rather spoiled, thoughtless young misses. Longbourn is one of the most successful Austen spin-offs that I have read, and I heartily recommend it.