Book Reviews, Historical

Review – ‘Longbourn’ – Jo Baker

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Rating: ★★★

I have been reluctant in the past to read any of the abundance of Pride and Prejudice inspired works out there, from sequels, to modern re-imaginings, or any of the others. However, I am glad that I decided to read Longbourn by Jo Baker, which focuses on the life below stairs for the servants of the Bennet family. It had a great balance of original storylines and characters and aspects from Austen’s work, although I would have liked a touch more of the latter.

An image from one of Longbourn's covers
An image from one of Longbourn’s covers

Longbourn centres on one of the Bennet family’s maids Sarah, who works along with Mr and Mrs Hill, as well as a second younger maid called Polly. She works hard every day, waking up before the Bennets have even. At the beginning of the book, a footman called James is hired, and Sarah is sure he is hiding something. Sarah’s life revolves around that of the Bennet family, who are going through all of the events we know; ‘Netherfield is let at last’, the balls at Meryton and Netherfield, Mr Collins’ visit and Elizabeth’s visit to Mr Collins’ parish, right up until Jane’s engagement, Elizabeth’s marriage to Mr Darcy and her life at Pemberley. However, Sarah’s experience of these things is far from exciting and she dreams seeing the world. She takes a liking to one of Mr Bingley’s staff, a black man called Ptolemy Bingley from one of the Bingley family’s plantations, who tells her stories of London, but is she also falling for James, the mysterious footman? Although it would be easy to simply tell Elizabeth Bennet’s story from the position of a fly-on-the-wall maid, Jo Baker does not do this and instead writes her own original stories for the staff. This was done so well that the stories of the Bennet family largely take a back seat, and matter only in the changes that they create in the lives of the maids; whether characters such as Ptolemy Bingley call at Longbourn, whether the work is heavier or lighter, or whether Sarah has to deliver letters to and from Meryton. However, there were only vague references to the Bennet family and their lives and perhaps with another few scenes where Sarah and the other staff interact with the family, the two stories would have felt more intertwined rather than  completely separate stories. It was the relationship between the staff and the family that I was really interested in, but the scenes where the two met in any way, shape or form were so few and superficial that it probably would have made no difference if Sarah worked at any other house in Meryton, not particularly with the Bennets.

Jo Baker, author of Longbourn
Jo Baker, author of Longbourn

I loved the angle of Longbourn which focused on the servants and their invisible world at Longbourn because, apart from the fascinating original storylines by Jo Baker, telling the book from the servants’ perspectives showed the main Pride and Prejudice characters in a different light. Although Austen shows the Bennets as leading a rather humble life, they are still wealthy enough to be almost completely ignorant of the lives of their staff. Lydia naively comments that she wishes her life were as easy as that of the maids, and Sarah is sent out on last-minute errands in the rain for things like roses for shoes and ribbons for dresses. We love Lizzie Bennet in the original story because of her independence and habits such as her love of walking, but in Longbourn we see the struggles that the maids like Sarah have in getting the mud off of Lizzie’s boots and dresses. Not only was reading of the lives of the servants interesting and informative, it was also rather funny, such as when Sarah comments that the Bennet family avoid any eye contact with her, perhaps because they know she has seen all of their dirty underwear.

The new characters – Sarah, Polly, Mr and Mrs Hill, James and Ptolemy – were all interesting and well-drawn. In particular, Sarah’s character felt like a real young girl and Jo Baker did a great job at writing her voice; it felt like within a few pages I knew just what sort of a person Sarah was. The other characters that we knew already were only really seen when they interacted with the staff, and although this did not happen often, I do think that Baker succeeded in making them recognisable when it did; Elizabeth and Jane giving Sarah one of their dresses seemed like something they would do, as did Wickham’s prying presence in the kitchen and Mrs Bennet’s insistence on Mrs Hill listening to her complaints. The only point at which I think this faltered was towards the end of the book when Sarah follows Elizabeth to Pemberley. At this point, which is where we see the most Elizabeth, she is far from the Lizzie that we know and love and seems far more anxious about people’s thoughts of her that I would have liked. I would have also enjoyed more mention of the events that we know throughout the book; perhaps more scenes between the sisters and Sarah where we could overhear their conversations about characters like Mr Wickham and Mr Bingley and see more of the relationships between the sisters. Instead, there were large chunks where almost no mention was made of Pride and Prejudice’s story or characters at all, and I could have been reading a completely unrelated story.

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Longbourn’s cover art

However, my biggest complaint of Longbourn would be its ending. Much like the ending of Pride and Prejudice, we whizzed through several years worth of the character’s life and many of the developments in the characters were very satisfying; Polly’s decision to become a teacher, and Mary’s improved confidence and relationship with her mother were all uplifting endings. However, with Sarah’s story, it felt like a rushed and unexplained ending, which was disappointing after reading over 400 pages of her searching for a happy ending. Also, the chapters where we are taken back in time to learn of the background to the main story through flashbacks felt like an information-dump and I would have preferred to learn these facts in less detail if they had been revealed through dialogue.

Overall, although Longbourn was an enjoyable book with interesting storylines and characters, I would have preferred if there was a touch more mention of the story and characters in the original story which I know and love.  I also was not a great fan of the ending but the story in general kept me interested throughout most of the book. I have heard that a film adaptation is in the works for this book, which I am definitely looking forward to, although hopefully more will be made of the link to Pride and Prejudice, and the ending may be made more speedy and dramatic.

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