'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.
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.
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.
on 17 August 2013
Confession; I love Pride and Prejudice (not quite as much as Persuasion, but...) It's the book I've read and reread more than any other. So I must admit to more than a slice of apprehension on first reading Longbourn, in which Jo Baker tiptoes below stairs to reflect the servants' story. I need not have worried. Baker takes the original and respectfully, assuredly serves up a new tale full of hope, betrayal, anxiety, war and (yes) while the Bennet family play out their own histories upstairs. This is very much a fresh and completely satisfying entire novel all its own, with Baker's own voice. We have a new, richly drawn heroine and hero, not without their own flaws. There's no flinching from the grimier and grittier side of life in servitude, but there are so many light moments of hopefulness and blossoming romance that keep the reader turning the pages. One for Austen fans, yes, absolutely - but read it for itself, I really urge you. Longbourn deserves that and so much more. Wonderful!
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.
on 2 December 2013
"If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields".
That's an irresistible premise for lovers of Pride and Prejudice - we all remember plenty of scenes in the classic BBC adaptation with Lizzie doing just that, but who has ever given a thought to all that extra work for the skivvies below stairs?
Pride and Prejudice spin-off books seem to be two a penny these days, but this one sounded particularly promising: just who was Hill, the Bennet housekeeper, and what was life like for her and all the other Longbourn servants? It's an interesting idea, and after seeing all the glowing reviews I was expecting a four or five star read. But after a really good opening scene, with the maids up to their necks in dirty Bennet underwear, it all went downhill pretty quickly.
So what went wrong?
Perhaps the author should have spent longer deciding what the book was meant to be about. Did she want to tell the story of overworked maids in early 19th century households through the character of Sarah? Or to give us a rather melodramatic spin on the unhappy Bennet marriage, involving an upstairs/downstairs love affair and a mysterious soldier on the run? A prequel about Hill and Mr Bennet, in the style of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (Penguin Modern Classics), might have worked better, saving the maid's story for a sequel.
And maybe she should have been braver in doing without all the references to the original novel, underlined by the quotes which head each chapter. There are far too many Downton Abbey-ish scenes with Sarah the maid helping Lizzie and Jane get dressed - we've all read Pride and Prejudice, we don't need to keep being told what's going on upstairs. And having established that the servants are all overworked and hard done-by it soon becomes very repetitive, and we have to wait until the end for all the mysterious longings and unexplained looks to be explained - I don't think I've ever read a more disconnected flashback.
The story is very formulaic and heavy-handed, too. Another reviewer has pointed out that it's as if the author made a list of everything that Austen doesn't mention, from slavery to soiled underwear, and made sure to tick off each item. Unfortunately this makes for a very disjointed and unfocussed novel - the inclusion of the token black servant is particularly clunky, while the arrival of the mysterious footman is simply odd. The graphic account of his army days reads like an afterthought inserted to tick another of those boxes, and belongs in a different sort of book altogether. And I just didn't buy the plot twist, when his origins are revealed, or the happy ending.
For me, Jo Baker is another one of those authors who spends a lot of time telling you about everything and everyone, but whose stories and characters never quite come alive. But it was a good idea, it's readable, and she's obviously done her research. And some things are done very well, like the opening washday scene and the convincing portrayal of Wickham, which shows a horrible new side to his character that's all too credible.
But in the end this book just didn't deliver for me - yet another disappointment, and a reminder that I really must leave these Austen spin-offs well alone.
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.
In a mash-up between Pride & Prejudice and Upstairs, Downstairs, this delves beneath the sunny surface of Austen's beloved novel to reveal another story peopled by the unnamed, invisible and silenced servants who keep Longbourn running.
This is a subversive re-telling, and one which runs alongside P&P rather than being a sequel. In the Longbourn parlour-maid Sarah, the mysterious new servant James Smith, and Bingley's glamorous black footman from Netherfield Hall we at first are given a story which shadows the familiar one. James' pride and Sarah's prejudice, especially, are interestingly done and throw light back on the original.
The last third of the book detaches itself from P&P and wanders far from Longbourn in both time and place, revealing some of the realities of early nineteenth-century life which Austen writes out. This is the least successful part of the book for me, and some of the plot workings are too obvious to hold any narrative tension.
That Austen's fiction erases the political both in terms of the Napoleonic wars, colonialism and the slave-trade upon which many of her characters' fortunes are based (particularly obvious in Mansfield Park) is almost a common-place of academic criticism, and this book picks up on that. It's more concerned, though, with the domestic realities of the servants who scrub Elizabeth's famously muddy petticoats and boots, who sit up half-asleep while waiting for the Bennetts to return from a ball, and who still have to start their working day at 4.30am while the Bennett girls are warmly tucked up in bed.
Baker makes no attempt to mimic Austen's style (thankfully) but this is an intelligent intervention into a famous novel which critiques it even while re-telling it from a transgressive angle. For a darker, though ultimately recuperative, story which reveals the shady undertow to the glossy glamour of Austen, this is highly recommended.
(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher)
on 21 July 2016
Unusually, this is one I bought and not part of the Kindle Unlimited package.
It focuses on a servant in the Bennet Household and mirrors from the point of view of the under stairs occupants what went on with Elizabeth and D'Arcy in Pride and Prejudice. Fair enough, this doesn't seem that exciting when one states the bare facts like that, but the skill and attention to detail that must have taken is second to none.
It is so well written, with both beautiful straightforward and complicated characters that I couldn't read it quick enough.
The production values were, as you would expect, really excellent. It's another's Editor's Pick from me. There were some highlights, one error and no bug bears for this one, which as usual are detailed on my blog[...]
on 14 May 2014
While this book isn't perfect ...occasionally lacks depth of character and the ending and some plot points seem slightly contrived ...I found it made me think long and hard about aspects of Pride and Prejudice that I'd not really considered before.
Normally I shun books that are spinoffs of other books. They nearly always prove disappointing. However, it's always fun to get a different perspective on old favourites, and this book offers one.
Not only is Longbourn a fairly realistic tale of what servants' lives at that time must have been like, but it's an interesting look at the Bennett family from another point of view. The events below stairs follow the timeline of the original Pride and Prejudice closely, and it's fun to watch the story we already know unfolding through different eyes. I think this author has made an effort to present the Bennett family in a different light altogether. In fact, some of the less likeable characters from the book and film adaptations come across as likeable here - and vice versa.
Some of the negative reviews seem to center around how different this book is from Pride and Prejudice, lacking Austen's wittiness and the lighthearted style she employed. That's true, so if you're looking for Extended Austen, don't buy this book. However, I feel it has expanded my horizons and understanding of social history. It kept my attention all the way through, and I feel like I know more about the period than I did when I started. I do think the likes of Downton Abbey paint too rosy a picture of life below stairs. I've read others that seem to paint a very black picture of the same sort of existence. I think Longbourn hits the middle of the grey area pretty well, and it certainly left me with a lot to think about.