I was surprised by some of the negative comments in the other reviews - this is one of the best 'Pride and Prejudice' spin-offs I've read (and I've read a lot of them and most are VERY bad!). Baker has very cleverly focused on the below-stairs staff at Longbourn, Netherfield and Pemberley, mostly through the eyes of chamber-maid/ladies maid, Sarah. The servants in 'P&P' are shadowy figures, seldom mentioned and not given any kind of fleshing out or detail by Austen and this has given Baker a very wide field for her own imagining of what was going on behind the scenes during the action of 'P&P'. She has very cleverly picked out tiny episodes (like the Netherfield footman delivering a letter to Jane, and Elizabeth's assuring Lady Catherine that her father keeps a footman) and has woven the servants lives around these tiny hints. Thus we find out how the various events in 'P&P' affect the Bennets' staff, including fears over Mr Collins' marriage - his wife could have turned them all out in to the street as well as the remaining Bennets once Mr Bennet was dead, after all; they are frighteningly dependent on the goodwill of their employers. The servants; Mrs Hill, the cook/housekeeper, Mr Hill (not mentioned in the book, but a fascination addition of Baker's), Sarah and Polly are all very real people with their own pasts, futures, hopes and fears. I thought that the addition of James Smith as the 'man' that Lady Catherine is surprised Mr Bennet keeps, was genius - I didn't guess his true identity and I won't spoil it for you here either - but it fits absolutely perfectly and adds to the tragedy of the Bennet family (read the book and you'll see what I mean). Baker has clearly done a lot of research into what would be expected of servants at the time and the sheer difficulties of washing, particularly clothes, cooking, shopping, travelling etc and all her description of the work the servants do rings very true. Also the way the servants are pretty much invisible to the higher classes - Sarah herself feels almost transparent when she first encounters Mr Darcy, who walks in through the door she has opened without even looking in her direction. Although Elizabeth and Jane are 'good' employers, they too don't really see Sarah as a person, like themselves, she is a servant and therefore a different order of being and treated accordingly. A highly recommended book for 'Janeites' and one that I wish I'd written and look forward to reading again in conjunction with 'P&P' itself and P.D. James' excellent sequel, 'Death Comes to Pemberley'.
on 27 January 2014
Many novels featuring the world of the Pride and Prejudice characters have been written, offering different viewpoints or 'what happened after', with varying degrees of success but at last here is one which is original. Baker has taken the fleeting references to the servants in P&P and given them their own story, a story which abounds with fascinating detail, strong characters and plot.
Sarah is the housemaid and heroine of the novel, longing to escape the drudgery of her life. The novel begins with Sarah getting up at half past four one chilly September morning to begin the weekly wash day which continues late into the evening before all the items are mangled and hung. The description is entrancing as we feel Sarah's chilblains, the soreness of her hands and her frustration with the young ladies who pay no mind to how muddy their hems get and how hard it is to wash the mud off (a delightful dig at Lizzie Bennet).
Into Sarah's life come two men: a exotic mulatto, Ptolemy, who is a footman in the Bingley household and James Smith who unexpectedly appears as a new footman in the Bennet household. She is attracted to Ptolemy and drawn against her better judgement to James, who she is sure is hiding a secret. Mrs Hill is the housekeep and Mr Hill the butle,r and they both have their own secrets and pain. Polly, the twelve year old kitchenmaid, rounds out the cast of servants.
The book cleverly runs parallel to the events of P&P but only intersects at carefully designed points which illuminate the life of Sarah and the other servants. We get a real sense of how the servants are dependent on the whims and fortunes of the family for their livelihoods and daily round of work: the girls are quite happy to send Sarah to walk all the way to and from Meryton in the pouring rain on a search for new shoeroses to decorate their shoes for the ball, Mrs Hill is very concerned that all the servants pay extra care to the needs of Mr Collins so he will keep them on when he inherits and while Jane and Lizzie are kindly girls who give Sarah one of their cast off dresses they clearly see her as a servant beneath them, there to help them and work for them.
There is plenty of plot, strong characterisation and attention to historical detail.The reader is transported to the world of a servant in a time period in which we tend only to read of the well-heeled. The novel stands independently of P&P and is yet enhanced by it. We see our well-beloved characters, Lizzie, Jane, Lydia, Mr and Mrs Bennet, Wickham and Mr Collins from the viewpoint of servants who have to wait on them and empty their chamber pots. But Sarah and the other servants have lives of their own that they have to struggle and toil through and the novel excels at leading us through their stories.
I think Miss Austen would have been proud to read Ms Baker's novel.
There is an old saying that "no man is a hero to his valet"! This first class novel takes that theme and transfers it to Jane Austen's Bennett family, their friends, associates, prospective sons-in-law etc and examines their lives from the point of view of their servants. Servants like the bright, intelligent Sarah - quite the equal of Lizzy Bennett - and Polly the young orphan, who work from dawn until dusk cleaning and cooking for those who live upstairs. Although the servant's role is to be silent, efficient, uncomplaining etc etc, it is impossible to live in intimate proximity with your employers without coming to know and understand their lives and characters even, it has to be said, the less than fragrant contents of their chamberpots.
The five Bennett daughters produce masses of dirty linen, which necessitates hours of backbreaking manual washing to remove the stains of life concealed under the veneer of upper class privilege and pretty muslin gowns. There is dirty linen of another kind also hiding beneath that veneer and it transpires that Mr B is not quite the jolly, long suffering saint portrayed by his original creator. He is, however, still bedevilled by the need to marry his daughters well to safeguard Longbourn estate owing to his lack of a legitimate son.
Into this overburdened, overworked below stairs world comes a new footman, James Smith, and lives are changed forever by his presence. A dark and attractive employee of the neighbouring Bingley family, with a challenging attitude about him, also impacts on the household through his liking for Sarah. Above stairs, much fluttering of female hearts is created by the temporary presence of a troupe of militia in the vicinity, but as Sarah all too unhappily observes, in contrast to the superficial glamour of the officers, the reality of military life for the ordinary private is brutal. James has his own reasons for being wary of an army presence in the area.
The author heads each of her chapters with a quote from Austen's orginal, then neatly overlays her own clever and classy tale of life, love, human weakness and insensitivity. Lizzie B marries a less than charismatic Mr Darcy, allowing Sarah to experience life at Pemberley for a while. Sarah is an excellent heroine and her narration of her story is engaging and rings true, as do those of Mrs Hill the housekeeper, sweet little Polly and the mysterious James.
Jo Baker is in no way trying to write an Austenesque novel, and she does not need to as her own voice and writing style are both powerful and delightful. It is a first class read, so settle down and enjoy a really innovative book.
on 3 January 2014
I have been intrigued by the concept of this novel since I first heard about it. It's a wonderfully gripping read - I couldn't put it down - and vividly depicts below-stairs life in Georgian England, bringing to light a whole other world and way of living, which I found fascinating. The details of the domestic chores are well researched and described, from the making of soap to the scrubbing of boots and cleaning of petticoats.
I knew little else of the plot other than it being 'Pride and Prejudice from the servants' view', and was pleasantly surprised by the coming of age / love story of housemaid Sarah, and the mysterious arrival of new footman James. Baker's writing is beautiful, although the omniscient third-person narrative drifts through various characters - I would have preferred it to be more sharply focused on Sarah.
I enjoyed the mix of characters and scenery, at one point flashing back to the war in Europe and touching upon the issues of slavery and plantations. It runs alongside the narrative of Pride and Prejudice very faithfully, but sometimes I felt that Austen's characters felt a little flat compared to Baker's original creations (who were complex and rounded) - Wickham in particular is made even more explicitly dastardly than Austen implies - and sometimes I found myself thinking 'Would Lizzie say/do that?!', although these occasions were few and I do understand that everyone is entitled to their own interpretations of beloved characters. It is interesting to read reviews that suggest it would be a better read with more references to the original characters / plot - on the contrary, I think it stands up as an engaging and thought-provoking historical novel in its own right, and would do so even without the links to P&P.
Overall, an enjoyable read that makes a refreshing companion to Jane Austen's novels.
on 19 December 2013
I wasn't so sure about this one at first. Considering all the Austen sequels, prequels, and re-tellings that have appeared in the past couple of years alone, it's hard to stand out, to somehow make a classic like Pride & Prejudice new. Literary writers have it harder than those turning the book into a contemporary romance or a murder mystery, because the result has to be more than ephemeral entertainment, it has to actually mean something. At the same time, this is Jane Austen--get too heavy and your audience will riot. Just ask writer/director Patricia Rozema, who tried to insert a bit of historical relevance into her 1999 feature film version of Mansfield Park, treating viewers to hints of Sir Betram's untoward relations with the female slaves on his Antigua plantation and Lady Bertram's addiction to the opiate laudanum. Austen lovers were not amused.
Author Jo Baker manages to tread the fine line between literary merit and pure reading enjoyment. She does this by essentially turning Pride & Prejudice on its head. The Bennets, Darcys, and Binglys become minor characters in a drama centering on their normally invisible maids, housekeepers and footmen. In reality, we aren't getting a retelling of a classic at all but a largely original work.
The plot centers around housemaid Sarah and James Smith, the natural (illegitimate) son of housekeeper Mrs. Hill and Mr. Bennet, master of an estate that will be entailed away from his heirs because none of the legitimate ones are male. It's this beautiful and tragic irony that provides the central thread of the novel. Baker does a great job recreating the daily grind of life in service during the regency period. Her descriptions of maids washing their mistresses' filthy menstrual rags and carrying sloshing chamber pots down staircases and through endless twisting corridors on the way to the outdoor "necessary" house brings us right into that cold, aching, stinking world. Yet Baker works to present us with rounded human beings rather than stick figure examples of the evils of social inequality. There's plenty righteous indignation on the part of the servants for their employers' often frivolous demands on their time and energy, but also genuine care and concern flow both upstairs and down.
Where Baker does go wrong is in the beginning of volume three of the book, when the action at Longbourn stops dead and we are treated to an exhausting flashback of James's experiences as a gunner in Portugal and Spain. Three chapters of violence, hunger and sexual exploitation that lead us....where? We already know the footman has an unhappy past and is wary of being noticed by soldiers of the militia staying in Meryton. And, through two taut interactions with the noxious and conniving Wickham, we get enough detail to set up the coming plot turns. The flashback is gratuitous and undercuts the novel at the very point when it should be the tightest and most dramatic.
Luckily, Baker does get back to Longbourn and even takes us beyond the end of Pride & Prejudice, so we get to follow James, Sarah, Polly, and Mrs. Hill a little way into their futures. Here's where the book really succeeds. Baker's servant class characters are as fascinating to spend time with as Austen's elegant creations and, by the end, we're just as sorry to say goodbye to them.
on 22 September 2013
The Longbourn estate automatically reminds us of the Bennet family in Jane Austen's `Pride and Prejudice', but in this novel we get to take a trip downstairs, to find out the stories behind the servants working at Longbourn. There's Sarah, a hard-working young woman who has been part of the Longbourn household since she was a little girl; Mr. and Mrs. Hill, young Polly and the new footman, James. It's not entirely clear where James has come from, and Sarah isn't sure what to think of him. However, she unexpectedly starts to develop feelings for him and suddenly all kinds of things start happening downstairs, which the Bennet family have no idea of...
With this novel, Jo Baker has managed to add a complete new mix of engaging and fascinating characters to `Pride and Prejudice'. I love the fact that with this book the reader gets a chance to find out about the things going on below the stairs of the Bennet estate. There are hidden secrets, traces of love and deceit, longing and wishes... Just like any other family, which is what this group of servants really feels like: a family. Jo Baker manages to capture and explain the emotions of these characters perfectly, which is something I really enjoyed. I am also glad the author did not decide to imitate Austen's writing style; this is a modern novel, and a story on itself. I'd recommend readers to first read `Pride and Prejudice', just because it makes the reading experience a touch more special, but you can also read this novel without any prior knowledge of Austen's tale.
When I started reading `Longbourn', I felt myself waiting for scenes in which Elizabeth, Jane, or Darcy would make an appearance. However, after reading about 50 pages I was so engrossed in Sarah's story, I completely forgot about the original `Pride and Prejudice' characters. It was actually quite refreshing to see a different (slightly clueless and ignorant) side of them. I don't think every Austen fan will be able to appreciate this novel, because Jo Baker has really given it her own twist and added some quite controversial details. However, I personally really enjoyed this opportunity to look at `Pride and Prejudice' from a completely different and fascinating perspective, and I expect that every time I'll read `Pride and Prejudice' in the future I will think of the servants standing in the shadows of almost every single scene. `Longbourn' is an engaging and original novel that provides readers with a fascinating look into the downstairs world of Austen's most famous tale, and one that once again proves that there are always two sides to every story.
on 9 September 2013
What an extraordinary feast of a book! I don't think I have ever read a better historical novel.
It's completely packed with everyday life detail for ordinary people. Far too many historical novels give us situations where it's just modern people wearing long dresses or riding a horse. Here we enter the real world of living with dawn starts, lugging every drop of water into the house in buckets, sore chliblained hands, mud up the skirts, horses needing care.
But although there is so much sheer information there it never swamps the drama that these are people, who love, hope, suffer, wait and struggle, as we do. That is a truly skilled writer. We share their dreams, and how some of them do not dare to dream.
My familiar friends in Pride and Prejudice move back into the background. I thought in the first hour of reading I might find this disturbing. But then I was engrossed in these ordinary people and I cared far more what was happening to them. I liked seeing Elizabeth, Jane, Mr. and Mrs. B. from another point of view when they did show up. But far more I became lost in this underworld which I did know quite a bit about - or I thought I did.
It was also good to find servants and other lower class people who were reading, thinking about politics and the great events of their times. Exhaustion and limited education did block much of this but stronger people could and did exercise brainpower. Oh and how sleekly this book explores women, the sexism of their world, but without preaching or moaning.
Then there's the romances, not so predictable, and an awesome hero with a rival who also fascinating. As for the older generation they are even more daring ... just read and find out!
After all that it is in many places an extremely funny book. Just how a lower class Austen should be. In fact if Austen had written the book about the servants and their interconnected stories, this is what she would have written.
In this richly imagined novel, author Jo Baker has used the frame of Pride and Prejudice and taken the story 'downstairs' to the servants quarters. Mrs Hill is the housekeeper and her elderly husband struggles with the outside work. Sarah and Polly are the housemaids; Polly little more than a child, and the household of seven people provide more than enough work. Into this scenario comes James Smith, taken on to help share the load and, while Sarah is grateful for the help, she is mistrustful of him. We view events through the point of view of Sarah, who is bored with the monotony and drudgery of her work, disatisfied with her life and who longs for change. When Mr Bingley arrives at Netherfield, he brings with him a handsome and exotic footman, Ptolemy Bingley, who seems to offer the possibility of a new life.
All the characters from Jane Austen's world make appearances here and the author is careful not to change events or characters in a way that would offend lovers of that authors wonderfully imagined world. Yet, events are viewed from the point of view of a servant. Mr Collins visit throws the house below stairs into a panic, for example, with Mrs Hill desperate to impress him - after all, their future also depends on him when he inherits Longbourn. Elizabeth's trudges through the countryside are viewed with dismay by Sarah, whose poor hands are ruined by the constant washing she does. Even reading about the laundering endured by Sarah, frankly made me exhausted! Wickham is as slimy and dangerous as he ever was in the novel and the militia create a stir in the neighbourhood, while causing James Smith a great deal of unease. Overall, this is a novel which can be enjoyed, whether or not you are familiar with Austen's novel - Jo Baker has cleverly created a new world which will appeal both to fans of Austen and to new readers.
I'm always a little bit wary when I read spin-offs written around one of the great Jane Austen classics, but I am pleased to say that Jo Baker has done a really good job with this interesting look at life below stairs for the servants of the Bennett family from Pride and Prejudice.
In the actual classic we hear very little of the servants, in fact they remain rather shadowy figures who existed only to keep the Bennett's clean , warm and fed. But of course, they had lives and loves of their own, and aspirations, hopes and dreams that were not all that different from the folks upstairs.
Of course, running through the story like a thread is the original story of thwarted love and too much pride, but rather than having a starring role, Darcy's pursuit of Elizabeth plays second fiddle to servant, Sarah's, infatuation with the Bingley's footman, the aptly named Ptolemy Bingley. However, it is Sarah's realisation that showy manners and sparkling wit are no substitute for the solid and rather more understated feeling she has for the Bennett's own footman, James, which becomes quietly reflective.
Jo Baker has woven an altogether delicious story of warm camaraderie based on wholesome values, and has instilled in her characters a real sense of purpose. Life certainly wasn't a bed of roses in the servant's quarters at Longbourn House, but in this story, neither was it all unrelenting drudgery.
on 17 May 2014
I see that one particularly scathing and snobbish reviewer who gave this book one star says she fears for the state of the education system if it turns out readers who enjoyed this book. Well I thoroughly enjoyed it. Set in the famous Bennett household its storyline runs parallel to "Pride & Predjudice". I found parts of the book very touching, particularly the way the servants, a collection of waifs and strays, cobbled together their own loving family unit. They look after each other and Mrs Hill, the housekeeper extends small kindnesses to her young helpers, Sarah and Polly, knowing what hardships life has in store for them. The descriptions of wash day, where the staff rise at 4am, made me feel grateful for my modern day appliances. I did wonder why such a large household only had a small number of servants but it seems Mr Bennett was rather on the stingy side. To be a servant was to have no status, and Mrs Hill, the housekeeper, worried about being "turned over to the Parish" should she lose her job despite working for the family for years. Sarah speaks out of turn to a Colonel and is sharply reprimanded, her worries about a missing footman are of no consequence to anyone. There are lots of interesting twists to the plot particularly involving Lydia and Wyckham and also Mr Bennett. Maybe this isn't a book for die-hard Jane Austen fans bit I found it very moving.