“Charlotte’s kindness extended farther than Elizabeth had any conception of; its object was nothing else than to secure her from any return of Mr. Collins’s addresses, by engaging them towards herself. ….it led him to escape out of Longbourn House the next morning with admirable slyness, and hasten to Lucas Lodge to throw himself at her feet.” Pride and Prejudice, Ch 22
A telling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the servants Hall, Jo Baker’s Longbourn is an intriguing new take on a well known classic.
Longbourn is the home of the Bennett family and the setting of this novel. Mr and Mrs Hill, the housekeeper and butler, have helped to raise Sarah the maid who they took from the workhouse as a child. Another young servant comes to work at Longbourne and after a fraught beginning the two fall in love but it is only a matter of time before James’s dark past means he is forced to leave again.
Longbourn can be easily divided into two sections, first where the lives of those above stairs rule the plot and the second, longer section which becomes a story in it’s own right. Baker deals well with keeping the upstairs characters as readers of Pride and Prejudice would expect them to be. There are also new and interesting character developments occurring such as Wickham who appears to wish to ruin James and the other maid Polly simply for the pleasure of it.
However, other characters such as Mr Bennett and Mr Hill change beyond all recognition for what seems to be only to produce a twist or a shock in the reader.
Jo’s prose style feels natural and she easily takes you with her to the house and grounds. She quickly establishes a warm friendliness between characters, particularly Sarah, Mrs Hill and Polly which pulls the reader in as well. These women have formed their own family downstairs and are protectively fond of each other.
The relationship between Sarah and James is touching and beautifully mirrors the fraught relations between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy upstairs. Baker frequently illustrates that the temptations are just the same upstairs as down and that they are all as equally likely to succumb to them.
Longbourn is full of twists and turns, some of them fairly obvious and some more inventive but it does not disappoint. It is just as good a read whether you already know the characters or not. It compliments Austen’s work and it is also a well written novel in it’s own right.
On a personal note I am thrilled to see Jo getting such recognition and praise for her writing as she has been for Longbourne because she was one of my creative writing tutors at Lancaster University and a thoroughly nice and talented lady.
“She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”
Elizabeth felt her blood run cold; despite Mr. Darcy believing his conversation with one Mr. Bingley to be confidential, she was not sure how a man could be so impolite as to say aloud that she ( or any woman for that matter ) wasn’t tempting. No, it wasn’t that she wasn’t tempting to the stranger, that would have been understandable to Lizzy, it was his arrogance – his conceit&& the way he viewed himself as above(better than) the women in his company ( i.e. her ).
– – – Positively disagreeable!
Her hands ran against the sides of her dress as if to fix any slight wrinkle in the fabric. Deep breaths as she regained the composure she so much needed. His opinion of her didn’t matter, she reminded herself, and it didn’t matter in the slightest that Mr. Darcy made ten thousand a year. She knew once her mother heard of his insult, she would agree that Mr. Darcy did not deserve the slightest attention from the Bennet girls; after all, money couldn’t help him become any more agreeable.
She tried not to, but throughout the ball, Elizabeth caught glimpses of Mr. Darcy ( && he almost never returned her gaze ). It was no surprise to her that he did not seem dance with anyone but Caroline Bingley – for there were no other girls up to his standards, it seemed. She would daresay he was most out of place among the guests.
Forced in his company by his ( most delightful ) friend, Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth now felt she must to speak to him – for the sake of being polite.
“I wonder who first discovered the power of poetry in driving away love?” “I thought that poetry was the food of love,” he asked, immediately following Lizzy’s opposing view.
She was quite surprised to hear him address her specifically, instead of to the group with which they stood. Her brown eyes met his ( but not for the first time that night ) and she could read curiosity in his stare.
“Of a fine stout love, it may. But if it is only a vague inclination I’m convinced one poor sonnet will kill it stone dead.” “So what do you recommend to encourage affection?”
She smiled – not because she enjoyed his conversation or because she enjoyed the attention he was now giving her – but because she knew that she could effectively end the conversation with one carefully phrased statement.
“Dancing… Even if one’s partner is barely tolerable.” The smile was still on her face as she bowed her head to the gentleman, glancing up at him with a smirk before turning from the group.
BLURB: “It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah’s hands are chapped and raw. Domestic life below stairs, ruled with a tender heart and an iron will by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman, bearing secrets and the scent of the sea.”
REVIEW: As a huge Jane Austen/Pride and Prejudice fan I was really looking forward to reading this book, which offers a view of the lives of the Bennet girls from a downstairs perspective. Sarah, the protagonist, is both likeable and easy to sympathise with as she yearns for a life beyond the gruelling routine of domestic service, and has some aspects of the famous Elizabeth Bennet about her in her intelligence and feisty spirit. Through Sarah we are introduced to her companions, who also work for the Bennet family – the quiet but gentle Mr Hill, the hardworking and loving Mrs Hill (his wife), Polly, the young maid-in-training, and a new arrival, James Smith, who comes to Longbourn in mysterious circumstances and remains silent on the matter of his past. Sarah is determined to find out who James is and where he has come from, but soon has her head turned by the Bingleys’ new servant, Ptolemy, who promises her a life of luxury and freedom with him in London. All of these events take place alongside the events we are so familiar with from Pride and Prejudice, which are reported from the perspective of the servants, and add an extra depth to Sarah’s story. Sarah’s close relationship with the elder Bennet sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, also ingratiates her with the reader as we know well of the goodness and kindness of these two characters. As Sarah and James begin to realise that they have feelings for each other, disaster strikes and James is forced to go on the run. It is at this point in the novel that we learn more of James’ background and, most importantly, his parentage, which is an excellent twist in the story. I really thoroughly enjoyed this book, which renewed my enjoyment of Pride and Prejudice as it felt as though I was experiencing it all over again, but in a new way. I did find myself disappointed slightly by the characterisation of Mr Bennet, whom I was always very fond of but who seemed far more ignorant of the feelings of others in Baker’s novel, and more driven by pride than Austen had led us to believe. This is the only minor flaw I found while reading the book, which I would highly recommend.!
“Lady Stark,” Elizabeth murmured in awe, curtsying so quickly and forcefully that she nearly stumbled over her own hem. “I never would have guessed that you would travel through our measly little town.” Lizzy cursed herself for speaking so lowly of Longbourn, but when standing in front of such a statuesque and important woman, it was hard to keep her manners straight.
Kink: He is the cousin of Mr. Bennet, and is the clergyman at the Hunsford parsonage near Rosing’s Park, the estate of his patroness Lady Catherine De Bourgh. Since Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have no sons, _____is the heir to the Bennet estate._____ is first introduced during his visit to Longbourn, Mr. Bennet's estate.
Eliza tilted her head curiously as she watched the man sitting on the armchair across from her. She crossed her ankles, her hands clasping in her lap. It was evident that she did not know how to respond to Mr. Holmes.
It didn’t help that he made the remark just as the two were left alone. It made Elizabeth most uncomfortable for it was not a social setting she was used to.
“I – uh – I do apologize for your inability to find a woman that meets your approval. But I must say, with all due respect sir, I have never met a man who treats dating as casually as you do. This may play into your dislike because, if it were me who you were treating with such incivility, I would in turn be uncivil and most likely cause you to hate me.”
She paused, her eyes meeting his to see if she was overstepping some social boundary. He didn’t seem to care if she was, so she continued:
“So, I would not be surprised if half the women you date do not like you, either.”
Her Royal Highness receives the latest intelligence from her plant at Longbourn; soon she’ll have all the information she needs to destroy Lizzie Bennet’s reputation and save Mr Darcy from a disastrously inappropriate match
Probably my second favourite thing about Pride and Prejudice fanfiction is AUs. There is something wonderful about reading about all the different worlds and ways in which Elizabeth Bennet can fall in love with Fitzwilliam (or just plain William, or on one notable occasion George) Darcy. There is something wonderful about the sheer number of different stories, and yet they always end up together. I’ve read Darcy as the son of a poor steward to the Wickham family of Pemberley, as a second son turned naval officer, as adopted, as having lost his whole fortune and being obliged to turn to trade to support himself. I’ve read Elizabeth as a governess, a lady’s maid, a duchess, as the true mistress of Longbourn and an admiral’s daughter, and a thousand other things besides. And yet, always, they find each other.
My very favourite thing, of course, is seeing all the different ways these AUs provide to scandalise Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Chilblains and Chamber Pots:
A (Biased, Temperamental) Review of Longbourn by Jo Baker
Jane Austen is my favorite author.
Under ordinary circumstances, I would be loathe to make such a bold claim. I would vacillate and equivocate, saying something like “Choosing a favorite author is like choosing a favorite child,” or “But what does favorite even mean? Is my favorite author the one who writes such beautiful sentences that I end up underlining every other line? The one who makes me laugh the hardest? The one who makes me feel the most hopeful about the world?” It’s an impossible question for someone like me to answer. Someone like me, to be clear, who is occasionally indecisive, prone to over-thinking, and book-obsessed.
However, when reviewing a book like Longbourn by Jo Baker, a book that makes me oddly defensive and territorial, I feel confident making such a claim.
Because it’s true. Jane Austen is my favorite author. She is my favorite author because she wrote not only Mr. Darcy, but Mr. Knightley, Captain Wentworth, Frederick Tilney, Edward Ferrars. Because she created the patron saint of introverts, Anne Elliott. Because Persuasion is the perfect mix of anguish and hope, regret and possibility. Because Pride and Prejudice is masterpiece in fairytale form, the kind of book that radiates so much light and warmth it could power a small country for days. Because Emma is a coming of age story that never shies away from its heroine’s faults. Because Sense and Sensibility is about family and truth and temperament and patience and the myriad ways we accommodate and compensate for the ones we love.
All of these things meant that it was impossible for me to go into Longbourn with anything but a trunk-full of baggage, hopes and expectations that couldn’t possibly allow for an impartial or unbiased reading. Having said that, I think that it is in some ways fair to approach a book like Longbourn with such a background. After all, who is Jo Baker’s target audience but the millions of rabid Austenites such as myself hungry for more of Darcy, Lizzie, Jane, Wickham, Charlotte, and the rest of the Bennets? In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Baker says that “I can’t remember when I first read Pride and Prejudice. It seems as if I’ve always loved it. Jane Austen’s work was my first experience of grown-up literature, and has supplied a lifetime of pleasure: it’s the only book that, as an adult, I re-read. Even after all these years, all those re-readings, and even after unpicking the backing to look at the underside - I still love it.” Is it, then, unfair of me to expect this love to translate to Baker’s adapted work?
Longbourn gives life to the mostly nameless servants of the Bennet family, those under-appreciated, overworked members of the household who burn themselves on curling irons so that the Bennet sisters look pretty for the balls they attend, whose hands crack and bleed on washing days from washing pounds of soiled laundry in vats of lye soap, who empty chamber pots and spend hours preparing meals for others to enjoy. The idea of portraying the “Downstairs” equivalent of the Bennet’s “Upstairs” saga is both brilliant and necessary. Reading Austen, or any of her Regency peers, it is all to easy to forget that, for all their struggles and dilemmas, the characters who populate these novels are privileged indeed, able to spend their days embroidering and reading and playing the pianoforte while the manifold unglamorous tasks of running a household fall to the hired help. It is easy to forget that Elizabeth Bennet would have had someone to dress her, to fetch her water to bathe, to empty her chamber pot. It is easy to forget that, for all their worries about money, the Bennet’s are wealthy enough to hire others to cook for them, clean up after them, chauffeur them to various social gatherings, run errands for them. In this way, a novel like Longbourn presents the very real problems of underrepresentation, and reminds us of the many stories we never hear, the voices both historically and currently that are systematically silenced, doomed to obscurity rather than posterity.
Longbourn centers around Sarah, the housemaid, who chafes against the indignities of her role even as she takes a certain pride in her work, but also explores the inner workings of Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper and cook, Mr. Hill, her husband, Polly, a junior housemaid, and James, the new footman with a predictably shadowy past. The most intriguing among these is Mrs. Hill, who receives a startling backstory involving a certain member of the Bennet family, and James, through whose eyes we see the horrors of the Peninsular War. For me, Sarah never quite gets off the ground as a central character. Perhaps it is because her character feels largely defined by what she is not, rather than what she is. She isn’t a sparkling wit like Lizzie, or an angelic beauty like Jane. She isn’t especially adventurous like her friend and sometimes love-interest, former slave Ptolemy Bingley, but neither is she entirely content with the insular world of Hertfordshire. What emerges is unfortunately a reactionary, ill-defined character who fades into the background where the heroine of the original work commanded attention.
Ultimately, though, what I had the most trouble with was Baker’s portrayal of the original Pride and Prejudice characters. While she occasionally nails the voice of a character (Mrs. Bennet being the best example) her portrayals are either overly generous or overly critical. Her Mr. Collins isn’t the well-meaning but sanctimonious fool of Austen but rather simply a misunderstood, socially awkward man who deserves better treatment from the Bennets than he receives. Mary, rather than a priggish stick-in-the-mud is an insightful and kind young women waiting to emerge from under the shadow of her gregarious, charming sisters. Even more troubling than these rosy-eyed portrayals, however, are those of Mr. Bennet and Lizzie. Austen’s Mr. Bennet is not without his flaws: he is dismissive towards his wife and would rather retire to his library with a good book than set proper boundaries for his daughters. But he is a loving father, an intelligent and literate man, a witty and humorous conversationalist. In Jo Baker’s imagining, he is ill and rapidly aging, neglectful of his children, emotionally withholding and actively degrading towards his wife, a man plagued by regrets and past mistakes. Similarly, Lizzie shoes none of the charm, wit, and insight that have made her one of the most beloved heroines of literature. Instead, she is aloof, idle, and consistently self-involved. Perhaps it was Baker’s intention to demonstrate the ways that any employer would appear privileged and out of touch to his or her employee, especially in such a sharply striated, class-conscious society. However, in doing so Baker unfortunately fails to capture the core traits which enlivened and illuminated each of Austen’s characters, the unmistakable voices whose popularity, even two hundred years after they were first published, made Longbourn as a novel possible at all.