'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.
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 3 November 2015
This book was interesting in parts - highlighting the drudgery that would have been the lot of the servants in Pride and Prejudice. Pertinent points make you reflect, for example would Elizabeth Bennet have gone trudging through the fields if she had to wash her own petticoats?
However I found the plot meandering and the characters incredibly dreary! Also even though servants lives were awful there surely must have been some humour, sarcasm and playfulness in their interactions and observations of others? The ending was also rather peculiar.
on 15 April 2015
I plodded through this book and wasn't very impressed. The writing is fine, but the plot is drawn out and boring. The first few hundred pages were slow going, and by the time I got to the mildly interesting end, I was so fed up that I no longer cared what happened to any of the characters. This might have worked out all right as a much shorter novel, but as it is, the entire thing seems mostly filler. The plot also far too closely mirrors *Pride and Prejudice*--it was unoriginal and predictable. This is the first of Jo Baker's novels that I've read, and I can't say I'm very tempted to crack open another one. Jane Austen re-tellings are hard to pull off. I liked the premise of writing from a servant's point of view, but I feel Baker fell very short of the mark.
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!
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.
I rather expected a piece of fluff, a light-hearted book which would just retell the story of "Pride and Prejudice" which we know so well already. Much to my surprise, and from the very first page I realised that this is definitely not the book that I feared that it was. This is a book about real people, servants and other working people, who inhabit the same time frame and location as Jane Austen's characters but definitely not the same world. The story centres on Sarah, the maid servant of the Bennet family, who works there because she has been left an orphan. She works very hard with little to alleviate her situation whilst in the background the familiar story is retold with some of the romanticism taken off. As Sarah falls for the strange and lonely footman and is tempted by the Bingley's exotic coachman she understands not only how hard her own life is but some of the truths that lie behind the outwardly happy life of the family she serves.
As the book concentrates on the servants we never have the Bennet family's point of view and the book is richer for the way that the gloss is taken off. Mr Bennet comes out really badly and behaves appallingly (although within the expectations of his class), Elizabeth is strangely vulnerable while hoping that she can live up to Mr Darcy's expectations, Mr Collins is slightly redeemed here as the servants understand his position more than the Bennet family do, and Mr Wickham is revealed as a truly odious character. All of these reinterpretations fit well with the original text and never contradict it and it is fair to say that I will never read "Pride and Prejudice" again without considering these alternative points of view. It really helps if you know the original before reading this but a superficial knowledge will do - if, like me, you have read the classic numerous times then this book is a greater joy.
I was truly enjoying this novel and then the story departed from Longbourn and its environs and ventured abroad. For a while I thought that this spoiled the book for me but, in fact, it added a layer of reality and context which Jane Austen didn't as her books stayed very close to the domestic. I felt that the end of the book was very rewarding and by then I was captivated by these characters and those of the original story were almost irrelevant.
This really is an exceptionally clever book with some excellent writing. It tells a unique story whilst embedding it in the Jane Austen story and reinterpreting that as well. I highly recommend this, especially to all of you who enjoy the original.
on 11 February 2015
An alternative take on the goings-on in Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice", a 'simultan-uel' if you will, imaginatively seen through the eyes of the help at the Bennet household. Sarah, the teenage housemaid, takes centrestage, and the action happens mostly in the kitchen and servants' quarters while Elizabeth, Jane and their sisters deal with their dramas upstairs in the drawing rooms and parlour. Fans of the original novel will take pleasure in matching the events with this version, from the giddy excitement at the Bingleys' arrival at Netherfield, to Collins's clumsy courtship of Elizabeth, to Lydia's elopement with Wickham, the latter given a meatier and more sinister role that sees him meddling with the lives of the central characters in Baker's narrative.
It is to Baker's credit that she keeps more or less to the tone and language of a Regency novel, and she awakens the reader's consciousness that someone needs to be laundering the Bennet girls' many dresses, curling their hair, sewing rosettes to their dancing shoes, and stoking the fires before dawn, getting chilblains and blisters doing all those chores to make the narrative of "Pride and Prejudice" possible. I found it especially sobering that Liz's memorable trek across the country to be with a sick Jane in P&P that was held up as evidence of her gutsy and selfless spirit came at a cost to her servants, who had to attend to her mud-caked boots and soiled skirts.
With such exhausting detail to remain faithful to Austen's novel, there is a good chance that the novel could fall flat on its face. However, Baker's work succeeds because she is able flesh out her characters well and incorporate them seamlessly into the narrative. Sarah is fully-realised as a budding girl who has aspirations which are contained by the stark realisation of her station in life. The mysterious James Smith, too, who comes to be the Bennet's footman, has a story entwined with the Bennet household and that gives a surprisingly fresh angle to one of the characters originally encountered in P&P. The second half of the novel also turns its focus on the war, which casts a harsh light on the significance of the militia who are stationed in the village, and contrasts itself from the light and bubbly narrative of P&P.