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4.3 out of 5 stars
Longbourn
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79 of 82 people found the following review helpful
'There could be no wearing of clothes without laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September.'

I liked the premise the opening sentence makes clear - seeing the events of Pride and Prejeudice from the point of view of the servants and gaining insight into the lives of the ordinary classes that Austen barely mentions. The novel opens well but is somewhat formulaic. It's as if Baker decided to make a list of what Jane Austen leaves out: war, politics, sex with overworked servants and then wrote a novel to address those. Clearly Austen didn't write state of the nation novels but her dialogue was great, her characters always believable, and her wit sparkling. Despite the current fashion of considering P&P to be chick lit, it is a sharply observed novel on one strata of society. It is pitch perfect. This novel strained my credulity - can you imagine Mr Collins having a chat about his choice of Bennet girl with a maid? For me, it added few new insights into Jane Austen's novel despite key references to slavery and fortunes made from sugar. Those are important issues, as were the difficulties of dismissed servants and I would have felt that more if Jo Baker had been able to simply concentrate on her own characters. I suppose that is the key point. A book like Wide Sargasso Sea (Penguin Modern Classics) casts new light back on our reading of Jane Eyre (Wordsworth Classics) and particularly its view of women and the exploitation of the colonies. I don't think this novel pulled that off - perhaps because it tried to pack too much in.

The strongest section is the first - a well imagined account of laundry day from the point of view of Sarah, the maid and main protagonist. 'If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them,' is a good example of where we gain a different view of Elizabeth Bennet's trampling over muddy fields to her sister. The drudgery that supports the lives of the Bennets is well described, as is the contrast with the much larger house of the Bingleys.

I think an important question is whether the novel could stand on its own without the link to the original. In my view it doesn't, despite some enjoyable passages. The ending of Longbourn departs entirely from Pride and Prejudice and is the weakest part of the novel. I suppose I should learn my lesson from this, and Death Comes to Pemberley, and leave this sub genre of Austen prequels, sequels and re-imaginings alone.

Having said that, I seem to be in the minority of the reviewers here.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on 21 May 2014
To contextualise: I am a big Austen fan and I teach "Pride and Prejudice" every year so I can be hard to please! For example, "Death Comes to Pemberley" was better on the TV in my opinion. What makes "Longbourn" a success is that it doesn't try to reimagine Elizabeth and Mr Darcy's courtship. In fact, the latter barely features which many will hate, but why the novel works. Baker also avoids massacring Austen's original characters - PD James's reworking of Colonel Fitzwilliam anyone? For diehard Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy fans - this is not for you. Naturally, both characters are remote. There will be some fans appalled by one or two plot twists involving Mrs Hill which are a bit more risqué. An enjoyable novel which tackles the criticism levelled at Austen: no awareness of the lower / servant classes, little awareness of the Napoleonic war and slavery / money from plantations. If you want more than 'P&P: The Redux' this is well worth your time.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 10 May 2014
This is the other side of Pride and Prejudice - seen from the point of view of the servants and domestic staff, who have their own lives and loves, but who are constantly vulnerable to those 'above' them. For them, life is 'a trial by endurance, which everybody, eventually fails'.

This book succeeds in every facet. It is full of historical detail, whether of the drudgery of daily life or the horrors of an early nineteenth century war. The great and well known story of Austen's book is always relevant, but deftly kept in the background of this tale. Sarah and Smith, the lead characters are beautifully drawn, the former innocent but knowing and the latter more worldly but anchored in decency. There is immense confidence in the writing, which is not afraid to take its time to tell the story, yet rarely drags. An outstanding achievement - highly recommended.
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98 of 108 people found the following review helpful
TOP 50 REVIEWERon 15 August 2013
Jane Austen is a favourite author of mine and, as such, I have always avoided reading any sequels, prequels or retellings of her novels, as I feel they would only disappoint - however Jo Baker's 'Longbourn' is something rather different and I must admit that I was pulled into this book from the very first pages. 'Longbourn' focuses on the lives of the servants who work for the Bennet family (from 'Pride and Prejudice') and the story is told almost entirely from the servants' perspective, so there is a lot of gritty 'downstairs' life and very little of the more genteel 'upstairs' variety.

In the servants' quarters we meet our main heroine, the housemaid Sarah, an attractive and determined young woman, similar in age to the older Bennet girls, but obviously leading a very different life. Then there is the cook/housekeeper, Mrs Hill (who has a painful secret she has had to keep hidden for years), her husband, Mr Hill, the butler (a man with secrets of his own) and lastly, twelve-year-old Polly, the kitchen maid. Into their busy, but quiet and uneventful lives arrives a new footman, James Smith, a dark, attractive man with a rather mysterious past, who finds himself falling for Sarah. However, Sarah, although initially attracted to James, feels a little rebuffed by his reluctance to discuss his past life, and consequently she finds herself becoming rather interested in the very good-looking Mulatto manservant, Ptolemy, who works for the Bingleys at Netherfield Park. But what is it that James is trying to hide from Sarah and should Sarah really be considering Ptolemy in a romantic light? (No spoilers, we learn most of this early on in the novel and there is a lot more for prospective readers to discover and enjoy).

This is a very atmospheric and wonderfully described story where the reader follows the servants in their day-to-day work, so we experience Sarah's back-breaking work with the family laundry ("If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields"); we feel the pain of Sarah's chapped and chilblained fingers; we clean and blacklead the grates; we beat the Turkish carpets and sprinkle tea leaves to gather the dust; we even have to empty the evil-smelling chamber pots that the genteel folk upstairs leave for Sarah to dispose of. And, as the author cleverly weaves threads from the original 'Pride and Prejudice' into her story, we also experience certain aspects of Bennet family life and are able to eavesdrop on family conversations, which makes for very entertaining reading.

In addition, Jo Baker is not just adept at describing indoor life - her descriptions of the Hertfordshire countryside were a pleasure to read, and her brief, but powerful depiction of a certain soldier's wartime experiences revealed during the course of the book was an interesting and involving aspect of the story. This, therefore, is a novel which works on different levels: as an exploration of injustice, inequality and poverty, but also as a romantic story of love and loyalty; it's not Jane Austen, of course, but it's not meant to be, and despite my initial misgivings I am pleased to say that I was entertained by this novel and read the entire book in one enjoyable sitting. Attractively presented and with each chapter headed with an extract from the original novel, Jo Baker's 'Longbourn' is a richly imagined story that makes for an engaging weekend, bedtime or anytime read, and one for which the film rights have already been acquired.

4 Stars.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
A book that makes our beloved Austen characters seem like insignificant butterflies in comparison the the iron hearts and hard work of the real-life servants. I absolutely loved this book, and for me the best part was the author's assurances that no matter what might go on 'upstairs', ordinary working people were the stars of their own stories as much then as now.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 5 February 2014
I have loved Pride and Prejudice from being a girl and like Jo Baker have read the book over and over again, Longbourn is such a powerful wonderful book that I can imagine doing the same with this one too. I was captivated by the story from the first chapter and found the love story more real and intense than any of the romances of the Bennet girls - it made me cry.
Jo Baker obviously did a lot of reasearch on the period and the harsh realism of how difficult life was for the poor in Georgian England shines through every page.
My only warning to lovers of Pride and Predjudice is that I dont think I will ever read it again with the same sympathy for the characters as in the big scheme of things their lives were very easy when compared with that of the domestic servants and other poorer classes of society. I realise that I probably feel this strongly because I know which class I would have been a part of in Georgian England!
In conclusion I cannot recommend this book highly enough and have already bought it for several of my friends and have used it for a recommendation for the book club I am a member of, I will be very interested to hear the other members thoughts and views on it too. Enjoy.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 28 August 2014
Highly recommended. I've read all Jane Austen's novels and loved them and have been deeply disappointed to read other authors continuances of the books and story lines with their fantastical unrealistic plots, and poor imitations of Jane's style and language. For that reason I was reticent to buy Longbourn, but now I'm so pleased I did.

The style is not one that mimics Austen, the story lines are plausible in a parallel time frame. There is an earthy reality to the trials and tribulations of the majority of the population at this point in Britain. Unpalatable but fair descriptions of the French Wars (think Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe, again without the officer class point of view) and therefore Jo makes it possible to feel a deep empathy with the Characters of Sarah, James and Mrs Hill.

I thought about this book and the characters in daydreaming moments when I wasn't reading, it moved me and I would recommend this book to anyone who loves Austen but finds her work a little too saccharine at times. This is reality with the odd silver lining and a light sprinkling of romantic denouement.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 24 April 2014
I loved this book. I thought it was a compelling peek into the underside of domestic life in the Regency Period and the fact that it was based around a household I was already familiar with, for me, gave it added interest. It was also quite thought-provoking seeing such well known characters in a different and sometimes harsher light. In appearance, the young Bennet ladies were like fine swans who needed their sparse servants to paddle and toil for them so they could appear serene and unruffled on the surface. The plot was well paced, and the goings-on below more than matched, and sometimes outshone, the dramas above. The small details of the maids' harsh life such as blisters and chilblains brought the story and characters to life. The prose was beautiful and so in tune with its period and cast. Sometimes I just had to stop and reread lines because the writing was so delicious. I will most definitely seek out other works by this very gifted writer.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 October 2014
I do not generally like spin-offs of classic fiction, and resisted reading this for a while, but having now read it, I thoroughly agree with all the good reviews. Pride and Prejudice is one of the most perfect books ever written, and I suppose the success of this book is down to the fact that it does not try to recreate or offer a sequel to Austen's story.
It is beautifully written, moving and well researched historically. Fascinating to learn about how soap was made, and realise how much of a chore it must have been washing out menstrual rags and soiled nappies.
I loved the servant characters and I thought the added insight into the characters and back-story of the Bennets, Wickham etc. was clever and plausible. The details on the Napoleonic Wars, slavery etc. also very well drawn. Much social comment to be pondered!
A really enjoyable, clever read, look forward to more from this author.
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