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Beautifully written companion piece to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE -- from the servants' perspective,
This review is from: Longbourn (Hardcover)
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Jane Austin's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is about the social mores of 19th century England, focusing on the Bennet sisters' efforts to find husbands. In her novel LONGBOURN, Jo Baker retells Austin's story from the perspective of the Bennet family servants, characters only touched on peripherally by Austin. Shy, deferential Sarah is a housemaid who came into service as an orphan at age six. Pre-teen Polly is sweet but silly, easily swayed by ruthless rogues like dashing officer Mr. Wickham. Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, is loyal and dedicated; she's married to aging butler Mr. Hill, who drinks a bit too much. Into their midst comes a mysterious young footman, James Smith, who intrigues Sarah and has a very odd effect on Mrs. Hill. The story Baker tells is every bit as romantic and revealing as Austin's, and it highlights an aspect of 19th century society that Austin and her characters ignore.
Those familiar with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE will recognize the story-behind-the-story - Jane's attraction to the affable Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth's confused feelings for Mr. Darcy, flighty Lydia's infatuation with officers, Mr. Collins's attempt to find a wife, and the comings and goings at Longbourn, Netherfield, and Pemberley. But what's fascinating about LONGBOURN is how much is revealed by the shift in perspective. For example, in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE Elizabeth walks to Netherfield after a torrential rainstorm, arriving with her skirts "three inches deep in mud," demonstrating her strong and confident character and her refusal to bend to convention. In LONGBOURN, we see what those muddy skirts, petticoats, and boots mean for the hapless servants who must routinely clean them. As Sarah remarks, "If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, . . . she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them." Sarah's world and Elizabeth's are decidedly different - while Elizabeth frets over the attention of men (those she admires and those she does not), Sarah has little chance of moving beyond her life of servitude. Should she accept the advances of Mr. Bingley's footman, Ptolemy, or should she risk everything to be with the enigmatic James? Either way, she will not end up mistress of Pemberley!
There are certainly similarities here to the television series "Downton Abbey." Sarah is very much like housemaid Anna, whose romance with John Bates has a lot in common with Sarah's slow-building romance with James (both Bates and James have things in their pasts that cause problems in their romantic relationships). Silly Polly is a lot like Daisy, and Mrs. Hill reminded me a lot of Mrs. Hughes. Devotees of "Downton" will no doubt enjoy LONGBOURN.
Baker has a remarkable talent for creating a believable and identifiable 19th century world; she seems almost to channel Austin in her tone, descriptions, dialogue, and ability to flesh out characters with very few words. While in the beginning I was more interested in the snippets of information Baker provides about the Bennets and their drama, I eventually found myself completely engaged in Sarah's life, in Mrs. Hill's history, and in James's experiences that brought him to Longbourn. Their stories are as compelling as anything Austin wrote, and the stark contrast between life "above stairs" and life "below" is both compelling and affirming. By the end, it's Sarah and James I rooted for, even though their life will never be what Jane's and Elizabeth's will. And I found Mrs. Hill's final realizations to be profoundly uplifting in unexpected ways.
LONGBOURN is a novel for anyone who admires Jane Austin, loves PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and enjoys historical fiction. It's beautifully written, totally engaging, and incredibly satisfying. Highly recommended.