on October 30, 2013
In writing Longbourn, it seems that author Jo Baker has read every criticism of Jane Austen and has tried to answer them within one novel. Austen doesn't mention the Napoleonic wars -- check. Austen doesn't portray life realistically, or as Charlotte Bronte observed her uninteresting world is, "a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers" -- check. The characters are reserved and prudish -- check. In fact, it seems Baker wants to answer all of these charges when, in fact, the strength of her narrative is in her portrayal of the most legitimate criticism of Jane Austen, that of her objectifying and largely ignoring the servant class. While Baker seems to believe modern readers require sexuality of every kind, the fact is these gratuitous forays of sexual exploration tend to undermine the importance of the work. Rather than an exploration of the Regency attitude of God-ordained roles for man and how these roles effect those ordained to serve, we get a tawdry romance.
In spite of this criticism, while many Austen enthusiasts may take exception to her portrayal of the characters of Pride and Prejudice, I found her perceptions of them to be insightful. In particular, her portrayals of newly married brides of the gentry class and their trepidation in realizing their happiness wholly within the power of one man is realistic and engaging. She lends a new shade to Mrs. Bennet that is wholly unexpected and, yet, comes across as genuine.
If you pick up this book do not expect to be transported into Jane Austen's world. Jo Baker's world extends far beyond the parlors of Longbourn.
on September 27, 2013
There is no shortage of books that are based on, related to, and/or inspired by Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice. In fact, it seems that the literary world has been recently inundated by works that claim a connection with the classic novel. And now, here is Longbourn, whose plot chooses to run alongside the original story, giving readers a glimpse into the lives of the Bennet family's household staff -- notably Sarah, a maid, James, the new footman, and Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper. And it's not pretty. While the Bennet girls go to balls, the servants deal with their dirty laundry. While Mary practices on the pianoforte, Sarah cleans up animal dung.
The novel itself is mediocre. Sure, the author is a descriptive storyteller, with sights, sounds, and smells flying all over the pages. And she has created characters with pasts and passions. But these characters do not leap off the pages. Furthermore, the novel lacks focus, trying to tell the stories of multiple servants, and switching perspectives so often and abruptly that the entire thing feels disjointed, and then, suddenly, there's a big twist, and a big shift -- but things don't get more exciting, only more grim.
Aficionados of Pride & Prejudice will, from time to time, recognize key events from the novel playing out alongside the servants' tales, but may be disappointed to find how little time is spent on our beloved, familiar characters. Mr. Darcy is barely even seen. Elizabeth and Jane have a bit more of a presence, but be prepared to find every member of the Bennet family -- yes, even beloved Lizzy -- to be full of faults, as seen through the eyes of the household staff. Some familiar characters are given a bit more depth than Jane Austen ever intended -- Mr. Collins becomes a sympathetic character, while Wickham actually comes off as worse than ever before. Most of the time, though, the characters P&P fans know and love will not even be in the picture.
Furthermore, the tone of Longbourn is very different from that of P&P. You won't find humor and witticisms here. You WILL find pain, passion, blood, suffering, intrigue, and dirty linen.
I can't say with certainty that a person must be a fan of Pride & Prejudice in order to get anything out of Longbourne, but I can say that just because one IS a fan of P&P doesn't mean she'll be a fan of this novel. The two are very different. Different tone, different focus. That said, it IS interesting to see "the other side", to get a new perspective (just be aware it may taint your views of your favorite characters), and the novel certainly wasn't a wasted read. I enjoyed many parts of it. On the whole, though, I find myself unable to recommend it, even to fellow P&P fans.
on December 17, 2013
I was intrigued to read this: a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of a housemaid. Fanfiction doesn't appeal to me; seeing beloved characters reimagined by someone other than the author who made me love them generally is not something I find emotionally fulfilling. And in any case, while I like Pride and Prejudice, it's never been a favorite. I do, however, enjoy retellings, which have a different appeal, casting new light on old stories or playing with perspective in ways that make readers rethink our assumptions. So it makes sense to me that Baker set her tale of Regency servitude within the framework of a beloved classic: not just for commercial reasons, but for its potential to make readers think about whose stories we consider important. It's hard to dismiss the Bennets as privileged and oblivious when we've vicariously enjoyed that privilege already, with no more thought to the servants than they have.
In that sense, Longbourn is a successful retelling, depicting the behind-the-scenes stories of the servants who toil to make their employers' lives agreeable. For instance, Baker takes a sentence from Austen--"from the day of the invitation to the day of the ball, there was such a succession of rain as prevented their walking to Meryton once... [T]he very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy"--and unpacks it: the weather was too miserable for the Bennet girls to step outdoors, so they sent a servant out into it to fetch their doodads instead. It's a fair interpretation, though often a gritty one that may not appeal to Austen fans. There is a lot about bodily functions here, down to the contents of the chamber pots that Sarah carries out. Without indoor plumbing, that is of course part of the servants' lives, but at times the focus seems excessive, as if Baker finds the Bennets' having bodily functions at all to be shocking or shameful.
My greater reservation about the retelling, however, is that almost all of Baker's points are made within the first chapter. This quote from the third page sums it up nicely: "If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them." Two pages after that, Lydia complains to the overworked and underappreciated housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, about how hard her own life is. The rest of the book repeats what we learn in Chapter 1: that the work of a servant is exhausting, thankless, demeaning, and likely to cause chilblains.
Of course, this isn't just a response to Pride and Prejudice, but also a story in its own right, and on that level it was only mildly successful for me. It gets off to a slow start and sags in the middle, so that halfway through I nearly put it down unfinished. It does improve, however: the last third is the strongest, and while the lengthy Napoleonic Wars flashback near the end is a bit odd structurally, it's effective at portraying the devastation of war and adding resonance to the novel. Meanwhile, the main protagonist, Sarah, is notable mostly for reactions that seem too modern for her time: "really no one should have to deal with another person's dirty linen" she thinks on the second page--in a time when laundry is heavy manual labor this is a radical opinion, and there's no explanation of how Sarah came to it. In another incident she happens by the barracks when a soldier is being flogged, and is sickened and traumatized by the event even though she's never met the person and isn't otherwise unusually sensitive. I never quite believed that a real servant in the 1810s would think the way Sarah does.
In the meanwhile, Sarah's inevitable love interest (I won't spoil who it is, because Baker teases us with a love triangle, but it's really obvious) also lacks personality and comes across as a standard male love interest. The most interesting character is the long-suffering Mrs. Hill, though savvy readers will spot her big secret from a mile away. The characters from Pride and Prejudice remain mostly in the background, and Baker seems to rely on our knowing them already from Austen's work. Some (Elizabeth, Wickham, and especially Mr. Bennet) are reinterpreted in ways unlikely to be popular with fans, though others (Mr. Collins, Mary, Mrs. Bennet) get an interestingly sympathetic treatment. Mrs. Hill's campaign to impress Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas is one of the best parts of the book.
Long story short, this is a decent mainstream novel to while away some time, if you don't object to reading a generic romance between a pair of blandly inoffensive young people, and it has the added bonus of a social conscience. The writing is fine, though I wouldn't put it in the literary category (the characterization isn't that deep in any case), and Baker appears to have done her research. It wasn't quite as interesting thematically as I'd hoped, though, and it's not the best tale of servant life that I've read. For novels that delve more deeply into the lives of English servants (albeit in different time periods) I'd recommend Lady's Maid or The Remains of the Day first. Two and a half stars.
on October 22, 2013
Jo Baker’s Longbourn (The Servant’s Story) is a somewhat radical departure from the majority of Pride & Prejudice paraliterature, which generally – even if it views the action from a completely different perspective – still keeps the events in Austen’s original story front and centre. In Longbourn, these events are only presented as sideline blips on the radar in the day-to-day lives, trials and tribulations of those who serve the Bennet family. They have more pressing things to think about!
The story is told primarily through the eyes of Sarah, the ‘head’ housemaid under Mrs Hill who, along with her husband Mr Hill, a second, younger housemaid-in-training named Polly, and the mysterious James who joins the household as a manservant, form the main cast of characters. And in reading about what they have to do behind the scenes to keep a ‘gentleman’s family’ running in the smooth and well-ordered fashion required, you get a completely different perspective on Pride & Prejudice and life in the Regency world in general.
One of the things I found most intriguing was how the story managed to show that while the Bennet family (with their relatively modest and entailed estate) was positioned in Austen’s novel as somewhat ‘hanging on’ at the edge of gentile prosperity, they were still SO much more pampered and privileged than they could ever imagine compared to the lives of those who worked for them. Seen through the servant’s eyes, you realise how much hard work others had to do to help ensure the nice and proper home, clothes, food, and entertainments that the Bennets needed to present to the outside world as a gentleman’s family – and expected as their due.
The fact that there are only four servants to start off with says enough – the capable, strict, but (underneath it all) warm-hearted Mrs Hill who acts as both housekeeper and cook (with assistance from the housemaids), her husband who is a de facto butler, handyman and groundskeeper, and then Sarah and Polly – both of whom were taken out of orphanages as children and trained in-house to be servants. The Bennets are not a family who can afford a lot of them. So... how does it come about that the mysterious James is suddenly added to the household, Hmm....?
As all these characters go about their business, you do touch base now and then with specific events in Pride & Prejudice – such as when Sarah helps Elizabeth dress for the Netherfield ball, or Mrs Hill is anxiously fussing about preparing the bedroom for Mr Collins’s (her potential future employer!) as perfectly as possible. Those scenes not only make you see the Pride & Prejudice story in a broader perspective, but get you really involved in the lives of these people who – without the resources of having been born into a ‘gentleman’s family’ – are still hoping for and struggling to achieve a relatively dignified and happy life of their own.
Social iniquity, the Napoleonic war and slave trade – none of these are issues that Austen dealt with. All of them move more to the forefront here, but not in an manner that makes for a pedantic or unpleasant reading experience. To the contrary! As the plot progresses, these elements work together within the P&P background to throw a few really jaw-dropping twists at the reader, as well as to give an unexpected “downstairs” mirror to the hopes, dreams and romances developing “upstairs”. Jo Baker has a great writing style and has used it to put together a very good and gripping story that will now always make me look at Pride & Prejudice through very different eyes.
on May 29, 2014
This book was pleasing to read at first. I had recently finished reading "Jane Austen's England" by Roy & Lesley Adkins (which I highly recommend as a non-fiction visit to Miss Austen's time.) Jo Baker's novel immediately established a believable cast of below-stairs characters, with historically accurate living conditions endured by all. It was easy to care about the servant characters from an imaginary backstage of Pride & Prejudice. It was a horrible life. How can you not have empathy for people who had to live without running water and indoor toilets?
Rapidly though, the beloved narrative of P & P was turned upside down, not merely because the servant class predominates. The wit of the original novel is inverted into bitterness. The lighthearted spirit of the story is extinguished by resentment. In the original novel Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters are to some extent imprisoned by their roles as gentlewomen in a society that allowed them very little autonomy. For all the main characters of the novel "Longbourn" there is even less freedom, even more desperation. For me, the story was suffocated by gloom.
One of the most distressing aspect of "Longbourn" is the transformation of some of the most endearing characters of the original novel into monsters. It seems almost as though the author thought that some of the characters of P & P got a raw deal, so in her novel she was going to give them some retribution. That just made the gloom-cloud denser and the story more hopeless.
I wish I hadn't read this book. Instead of merely showing us the chamberpots beneath the Bennett family's bedsteads, the author dumps them on our heads.
on November 16, 2013
I thought this was a great concept and was excited to read it but I was very disappointed. I don't want to spoil anything so I will keep this general. I love P&P and have been called a "purist", so I am easily disappointed. The style was not in keeping with the era, it felt very modern to me. The storyline was thin. The relationships felt forced and I found that I didn't really care about the main character or her love interests... There was vulgarity for vulgarity's sake; it was like the editor told the author it needed more grit and it was just added in random places. I have read of some Downton Abbey comparisons and I will quote from the character Violet Crawley that "vulgarity is no substitute for wit". I finished the book just out of my own need to finish what I start, but I didn't have any real interest in what happened. In short, I do not recommend this book and am a little upset at myself for wasting the time and money. I was very surprised to see the good reviews, so maybe I missed something. But then again I've only read one piece of fan fiction for P&P that I enjoyed out of the 20 or so that I've tried, so that should speak volumes.
on November 7, 2015
Okay, I'm still not finished with Volume Three, so this review may be premature. No, it is not. It seems the author made a checklist of every evil to befall mankind, from murder, sexual abuse of children, animal cruelty, slavery, war, injustice, physical torture, child abandonment, and believe me, the list goes on and on. Then she just goes down that list and attaches them all peripherally to another author's story willy nilly. This book has decent parts, but bogs down often. I will not be reading any other books she creates.
I had very high hopes for Jo Baker's "Longbourn," but as I indicated in the title of my review, it just missed the mark for a 5 star review. I think that the idea of the book was so very original -- "Pride and Prejudice" from the point of view of the servants in the Bennet household -- that I perhaps expected more than the author was able to deliver. Anyone who has read Jane Austen's most famous works, her six novels, knows that the author rarely mentioned the downstairs staff. We know from "Pride and Prejudice" that Fitzwilliam Darcy's housekeeper at his estate was Mrs Reynolds, as she appears toward the end of the book to give Elizabeth Bennet and her aunt and uncle a tour in Mr Darcy's absence. It is an interesting fact that in the 19th century that strangers often took tours of estates when the owner was absent. Today we'd be calling for the police!
The main characters of "Longbourn" are the teenage maids, Sarah and Polly, the housekeeper and cook, Mrs Hill, her husband, the new footman, and in an unexpected plot twist, a bi-racial male servant (Tol) from the Bingley estate who may be the half-brother of Charles Bingley, suitor of Jane Bennet. Much of the book is told from Sarah's point of view, and she is a romantic girl at heart. In some ways she is similiar to Austen's "Northanger Abbey" heroine Catherine Moreland, who saw Gothic elements in the most harmless artifacts. Sarah spins a whole life narrative about the new footman, James Smith, some of it as the heroine of her own fantasy that Smith is a criminal whose past she will expose. This is primarily because he is ignorning her for reasons of his own when he actually finds her quite attractive. She also is smitten with the servant Tol Bingley, and risks the wrath of Mrs Hill to smoke a cigarillo with him. I found this aspect to be rather unbelievable, as I also found Sarah's conversation with Mr Collins when she presumes to ask his advice about her attraction to Tol. I seriously doubt that any servant of that time period would dare so address a person of Mr Collin's station, and a guest in the house, even if he was a man of the cloth. But even those bits of oddness are not what caused me to give it a 4 instead of 5 star rating --- not even half way through the book it just started to stray from the original premise and go more to flights of fancy regarding the two footmen. I also thought it rather odd that the author had the Bingley footman be a mulatto servant and son of a female slave from the islands. I know that one of the movie versions of "Mansfield Park" suggested that the elder Mr Bertram had relations with female slaves when he was at the plantations in the West Indies, but I am hard-pressed to see how that fits into the "Pride and Prejudice" narrative.
The best aspects of the book to me were the glimpses we had of the Bennet family though the eyes of the servants, especially those of us familar with the original work. Sarah obviously admires Jane and Elizabeth, as do all fans o' Austen. We see how the servants look upon Eliabeth's spoiling her petticoats on her famous walk to Netherfield Park to stay with her sick sister, Jane. We see the servants reactions to washing the underwear and sanitary cloths of the girls, empty the chamberpots every morning, and in many respects know much about the young ladies than the latter will ever know, or care to know, about the servants who make their lives so comfortable. Sarah sees Lydia and Kitty as the shallow young girls that they are, and later Lydia as the smug 16 year old bride of the feckless Wickham, the latter who flirts shamelessly with naive Polly. While I had figured out the mystery of James Smith early on in the book, when the writer decided to tell the readers it was quite touching. Even with the flaws, I liked the writing style of the book, as it had a slightly old fashioned feel to it, without trying to duplicate Austen. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves the works of Austen, even though some aspects of it are not terribly realistic. What is next, Ms Baker?
on October 8, 2013
This is a thoroughly believable ground level layer to Pride and Prejudice. It does include well researched war conditions of the time. This is definitely movie material. Austen fans should enjoy this new dimension to the classic. The characters are well drawn and their stories, independent of those 'above stairs', are engaging. There is some uneveness in pace and, with the story being about the lower class, there is a modicum of sex and violence. It is not a tale of Regency drawing rooms, but of those whose work made the lifestyle of their 'betters' possible.
on November 13, 2013
Tedious "prose", flat characters, contrived plot devices. I don't understand the hype around this book. It's an interesting idea full of potential, but it didn't come together right for me. The "mystery" around the new footman felt forced; in fact, every character felt forced. I didn't believe in any one of them. It was like reading a Pride and Prejudice fanfiction. I really regret buying this book and I'm done with new fiction inspired by Jane Austen novels because they're never worth it.