Book Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker
Longbourn is Pride and Prejudice turned upside down… or rather, as viewed from below-stairs. I think every blurb I’ve seen about Longbourn so far has described it as “Downton Abbey meets Pride and Prejudice“, and that’s a fairly good place to start.
In Longbourn, maidservant Sarah is our main point-of-view character. Sarah has been in service to the Bennet family since she was a small girl, and while we readers of P&P all probably share a rather rosy view of the Bennet’s idyllic country life, it’s not quite as pretty when presented by Sarah. Through Sarah, we see what it really takes to run a household of that nature — laundry days, incessant scrubbing, tending to the girls’ bodily needs, turning pig fat into soap. Author Jo Baker doesn’t shy away from the nastier bits, and there are plenty.
It’s all very well to admire Elizabeth Bennet for her pluck and adventurous streak, but as Sarah ruminates:
If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
In P&P, all is managed. Dirty clothes are taken care of. We never hear about chamber pots or dirty dishes, sweaty clothing or soiled sheets. In Longbourn, these are all the stuff of daily life. Through the effluvia of the Bennet household, the serving staff get to know the family intimately, and while it’s agreed that they are a decent sort to work for, it’s still shocking as a P&P fan to realize the utter cluelessness that the girls have regarding what a servant’s life is really like.
Even wonderful Elizabeth — so beloved by all of us! — comes across as unaware at best or insensitive at worst, as her interactions with Sarah make clear that Sarah’s life is of no concern. Not that Elizabeth has harsh feelings toward Sarah — just that it doesn’t really occur to her that Sarah has feelings or issues of her own to deal with.
Besides the household muck and mire, we see the country in quite different terms than in P&P as well. Yes, the important families and estates have their dinners and balls… but in the town, there are people going hungry, young men are enlisted to fight in pointlessly brutal foreign wars, and meanwhile the local garrison of the militia strut around like heroes while conducting their dirty business elsewhere. We may think of pretty BBC productions when we think of the Regency era, but in Longbourn, that pretty illusion is shattered. Make no mistake, this was not an easy time to live in without family money and connections, and the lives of the working class are not to be envied. Even for Mr. and Mrs. Hill, long established as head of the Longbourn staff and considered to hold a very desirable place in the household, it’s clear that this is not a comfortable or secure life.
The lives of the servants are harsh and yet full of vitality. They are not shielded by manners and customs from the realities of their world. Matters such as fashion and reputation and whispers and inheritances are of small matter to people whose future security rests entirely on the whims of those they serve, who can be turned out at any moment into a world in which decent work is scarce, and whose ability to even secure a position is completely dependent on the willingness of a former employer to provide a reference. Seen through the servants’ eyes, the possible tarnishing of a young lady’s reputation is small potatoes compared to the specter of starvation and homelessness.
Interestingly, for me Longbourn is at its strongest when it goes “off-book” entirely. The third section of Longbourn goes outside of the confines of the P&P world and explores the lives, secrets, and histories of the Longbourn characters in a way that’s completely unrelated to P&P. I loved this part of the book the most. The characters really feel alive to me here, and perhaps they need this extra freedom from the original story in order to become fully formed, with purposes and hidden desires of their own.
Jo Baker clearly knows P&P inside and out, and as she explains in the author’s note: “When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn. When the Bennet girls enter a ball in Austen’s novel, they leave the carriage waiting in this one.” It’s fascinating to page back through P&P at random and find all of these points of intersection — the meals, the guests arriving at the door, the gowns fetched and fluffed — and seeing the work involved on the part of the Longbourn servants to make all of these things happen.
The writing in Longbourn is simply splendid, both in passages exposing the darker side of the pretty pictures we’re used to from Austen’s world and in simple sentences that convey quite a bit about the Bennets and the servants alike:
Some of my favorites:
Jane and Elizabeth confided with each other in anxious virginal huddles, whispering over letters, scandalized by the gossip that was now leaking back to them.
Life was, Mrs. Hill had come to understand, a trial by endurance, which everybody, eventually, failed.
And one more:
The house was all up and down and front and back, and nothing sideways to it at all.
Sarah is the main character, but we also read sections told from the perspectives of footman James, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and the small serving-girl Polly. Sarah is a strong, smart, determined, and utterly wonderful main character, and James too becomes completely fascinating as we get to know him better. Early on in the book, the shifting voices are a bit jarring, but as Longbourn progresses and we get to know each one on their own, the story is enhanced by allowing readers to see unfolding events through different eyes — especially as each character often has access to a different piece of the puzzle, and so a fuller picture emerges as we witness multiple views of the people and actions involved.
Jo Baker is very faithful to the overall characterizations of the Bennets and their associates, although Mr. Bennet comes off in a less favorable light, and surprisingly, Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins are both much more sympathetic. In fact, I doubt that I’ll ever allow myself to feel my usual scorn for Mrs. Bennet, now that Jo Baker has given me a quite plausible (and sad) explanation for how she ended up the way she is.
Overall, I’d say that there’s a lot to love about Longbourn. P&P afficionados will be pleased by the respect shown by the author toward Austen’s original text — and yet she also doesn’t hesitate to pull back the curtains and show us what else might be going on in this familiar world.
Longbourn certainly stands on its own outside of the shadow of Pride and Prejudice. In fact, I could see the story of Sarah and the serving class making a fine novel without needing the framework of P&P — although undoubtedly the connection to P&P will help tremendously with the marketing and publicity for Longbourn.
While I enjoyed the brief glimpses of the Bennets (and even Mr. Darcy, who makes only fleeting appearances in this book), Longbourn‘s main characters are compelling and their struggles and challenges held me captive. I didn’t need to see Elizabeth and Jane and the Bingleys — I had Sarah and James, and they’re pretty spectacular.
Author: Jo Baker
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Knopf via Edelweiss